Mahan Gap residents rally ahead of Hamilton County Commission's sewer plant meeting

Mahan Gap residents rally ahead of Hamilton County Commission's sewer plant meeting

December 10th, 2018 by Judy Walton in Local Regional News

People look on as North Hamilton County United for Responsible Growth President Dean Moorhouse, center, speaks during a meeting at the Highway 58 Volunteer Fire Department Bob Scott Training Center on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018 in Ooltewah, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

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Neighbors around the site of a proposed sewage treatment plant met Monday to rehearse before their only formal opportunity to sway Hamilton County commissioners against the idea on Wednesday.

Unlike two previous public briefings when homeowners around the proposed site on Mahan Gap Road hissed and catcalled the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority's plan, the 200 or so people gathered at the Highway 58 Volunteer Fire Department training center were quiet and focused as organizers outlined the presentation.

The group, organized as North Hamilton County United for Responsible Growth, will present to the commission's zoning committee at Wednesday's agenda session. That committee will make a recommendation whether to approve or deny a special permit for the plant on 157 acres of Mahan Gap Road at the Dec. 19 commission meeting.

County Commissioner Chester Bankston, who represents the area, is fully on board with his constituents' rejection of the plant.

"We're going to win this fight," he told the group.

Growth group president Dean Moorhouse and North Heron Bay homeowner Brent Smith said five speakers will deliver a "well-researched presentation" on objections to the site, ranging from its location in floodplain and floodways to possible spills and contamination or the spread of dangerous microorganisms to children and the vulnerable elderly.

Dean said an engineer will talk about the hazards of chlorine processes to treat the waste and the group will remind commissioners of the "doubtful track record" of the WWTA, which has spilled more than 2 million gallons of sewage into Rogers Creek in the last year and just was sued for dumping millions of gallons of waste into the Tennessee River from its Signal Mountain treatment plant.

WWTA officials have been lobbying county commissioners with the idea Mahan Gap is the most logical and least costly site. The neighbors agree on the need for more sewer service but want the treatment plant placed elsewhere.

"It's not what they've told [commissioners] that we're afraid of, it's what they haven't told them," Dean said: Not accounting for the impact of a 10-million-gallon $45 million treatment plant in an area of 7,500 people, 3,500 homes and close to $1 billion in real estate within three miles that will be affected to some degree.

"I feel confident we have enough in our presentation that those people who are undecided or leaning in one direction, that we can get five votes," Dean said.

Unlike past meetings, where speaker after speaker stood to denounce the plan and the WWTA officials who thought of it, questions were limited Monday.

Robert Gonzalez called it "a ticking time bomb waiting to happen." He said he and his wife lived near a sewage treatment plant in New Jersey before moving to Ooltewah.

"When [WWTA executive director] Mark Harrison says there's not going to be any smell, he's not telling the truth," Gonzalez said. "The air will stink and there will be air pollution."

One resident asked about a federal consent decree that's being negotiated requiring WWTA to spend what it takes to stop sewage overflows.

Early in December, the WWTA acknowledged that it expects to sign the consent decree sometime early in 2019. The legal agreement will require repairs and upgrades to sewer systems in East Ridge, Lakesite, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank, Signal Mountain, Soddy-Daisy and the unincorporated county. The utility said sewage rates will double over the next several years to raise $245 million for the work, including the new treatment plant.

Smith has said WWTA has little regulation except for reactions to pollution by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Justice Department and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. He also has said the consent decree could provide political cover for commissioners forced into an unpopular vote.

The homeowners group is renting buses to haul residents to Wednesday's meeting for the zoning hearing.

Commission Chairman Sabrena Smedley said she will ask to waive the rule that limits public comments to 20 minutes per side. She will ask her colleagues to agree to 45 minutes per side, with the option of taking more time if needed.

"What's important to me is that have ample time to make their point," Smedley said. "I plan to set ground rules — it's a commission meeting, an important business meeting, and I just want everyone to be very respectful on both sides."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.