Voting down a sewage treatment plant in Ooltewah last month might have been popular, but it didn't do anything to solve a problem that could cost Hamilton County millions in penalties and lost growth opportunities, a county commissioner said Wednesday.
"We are going into a new year and it seems we should think ahead," Commissioner Warren Mackey said at the commission's first meeting of 2019.
Sewer infrastructure is a critical need, Mackey said.
"The EPA is breathing down our necks, there's $248 million in repairs needed [by the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority], and somebody sooner or later is going to have to deal with that."
As of Wednesday night, it looked like somebody is ready to step up: Tennessee American Water Co. confirmed it is interested in buying WWTA.
"As a private water utility we always are open to helping find solutions that provide an essential service to citizens and are sound business investments," Tennessee American spokeswoman Daphne Kirksey said in an email.
"County officials have stated their interest in exploring various options on the waste water in the northern part of the County, including the possible sale of the WWTA. Tennessee American Water has expressed to officials our interest in bringing our expertise to the table as owner operator of the system."
WWTA board chairman Mike Moon said another private utility also has called him about a possible sale. He said the WWTA board hasn't discussed any sale and if it decided to do so it would have to request proposals from potential buyers.
"We're looking for direction from the county commission," Moon said. "Are we going to continue to look forward or are we going to pause another year for a [request for proposals] that may or may not bear any fruit?"
At Wednesday's meeting, Mackey noted that a 2007 moratorium on new sewer connections in Signal Mountain because of sewage overflows is still in effect. And he reminded colleagues that in 2011, Jefferson County, Alabama, filed a $4.2 billion bankruptcy over its failure to fix its failing sewers.
"We're going to have to face this, get control over it and stop pretending wastewater is not a problem," Mackey said. "You all want economic development but without wastewater being dealt with, it's not going to happen."
Commissioners voted 6-3 last month not to grant a special permit for the WWTA to build a sewage treatment plant at 7800 Mahan Gap Road.
The utility proposed a plan for $245 million in repairs and rehabilitation to stop frequent sewage spills and open up the north end of the county for development. It was several weeks before WWTA acknowledged the repair plan was being forced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department over years of violations of the Clean Water Act.
Outraged homeowners in the area agreed WWTA needs to clean up its act but vehemently opposed siting the plant in a frequently flooded lowland, amid 3,500 homes and two schools.
Now, Mackey said, "This commission needs to have some kind of public meeting to hash out this $200 million bill that's sitting on top of us."
"We're about to be fined big money; we can't ignore it even if we make people mad," he said. "We were lied to. Somebody said there were three or four groups who wanted to buy [WWTA]. Name them. Where is the vacant land we can build a wastewater treatment plant on on? Meigs County doesn't want our waste."
Commissioners David Sharpe and Katherlyn Geter supported the idea of public talks, though Geter said she felt "bullied in terms of my decision and the way that I voted" based on information provided to commissioners.
"What I'm asking is that we fully vet every single option, and that is not what was done in 2018," Geter said.
Chairman Sabrena Smedley said "we owe it to all citizens of Hamilton County, when we're told rates may double over seven to nine years." She said she and Commissioner Chester Bankston are told their districts, 7 and 9 respectively, can expect nearly a third of all growth in Hamilton County within their districts in the coming years.
Smedley also said she had talked with two companies interested in buying WWTA, but said she had promised not to name them.
Both said they could free up capacity and extend sewers without having to wait seven years for a new plant to be built, she said. She couldn't provide details of how they would do that.
"Something this important and that has this kind of impact, we need to make sure we've done our due diligence," Smedley said. "I want to know we're looking at a long-term, big-picture plan. If there's an opportunity to sewer the whole county, we should be doing that."
Moon said he got a call from a company called Aqua America, of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, two days after the Dec. 19 commission vote.
Aqua America's website says it is a 132-year-old company that provides water and wastewater services to more than 3 million people in eight states and is growing through acquisitions.
Moon said the caller from Aqua America told him the company had received a call from Hamilton County right after the commission vote suggesting it look into buying WWTA. The company did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
And, he added, whoever owns WWTA is going to have to raise rates to pay for stopping sewage spills and installing new sewers.
Brent Smith is a leader of the group of homeowners whose vehement opposition stopped the permit for the Mahan Gap Road site.
Smith was at the commission meeting Wednesday and later said WWTA appears to be conflating the ongoing sewage spills with a future wastewater treatment plant.
"The consent decree has nothing to do with the new wastewater plant," Smith said. "WWTA has not carried out its responsibilities under its current permit."
He favors the public discussion and vetting of alternatives commissioners recommended Wednesday.
"If you want growth in North Hamilton, what this end of the county needs is sewer service. That doesn't necessarily mean a sewer plant," Smith said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.