Hamilton County's mayor went before the wastewater treatment authority board on Wednesday to address concerns surrounding a city takeover of county wastewater operations and to assure WWTA board members their work has been appreciated.
Mayor Jim Coppinger assured members their efforts to improve the county's wastewater situation haven't gone unnoticed in the face of harsh criticism over their handling of sewage operations and amid takeover concerns. This week, both the Hamilton County Commission and Chattanooga City Council discussed potential joint projects, amplifying those beliefs that the city is in the midst of a full sewage takeover.
"There's been a whole lot of rhetoric ramped up over the past year that WWTA is the piñata of this county, and in my opinion, that's a little bit unfair," Coppinger said. "I have a lot of respect for the people that work here, and I want you to know that."
In recent months, controversy has brewed in the Ooltewah area, where WWTA proposed building a new sewage treatment plant off Mahan Gap Road. WWTA officials said without the plant, growth in the area would slow, or stop altogether. The county commission in December, under pressure from the community, ultimately voted to deny the special permit for the $45 million project.
Then in February, the agency's executive director, Mark Harrison, resigned.
Later that month, Coppinger hosted a meeting with Ooltewah residents and announced that WWTA would work with community to form a committee to look at solutions to meet the area's growing sewer needs.
During this week's council meeting, Councilman Chip Henderson asked the city attorney to make preparations for a benefit analysis for a potential consolidation. A consolidation would have to be agreed upon by both parties. The resolution would be the first step to look at whether the county and city should consolidate, not a look at how that would happen, Henderson said. Additionally, the council and commission announced the two bodies are cooperating on a sewer connection and holding tank near Lee Highway.
Coppinger on Wednesday assured the WWTA board the county will continue to look long-term at wastewater operations, adding that it would be in both the city and county's best interest to look at a cooperative agreement while considering future growth.
"Anybody who thinks you can grow without a sewer plant isn't thinking," WWTA vice chairman Dick Gee said. "We think we need to be at the table when that is considered."
Consolidation talk has intensified as WWTA negotiates terms of a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and Tennessee authorities after years of Clean Water Act violations and millions of gallons of sewage spilled into local waterways.
The group met with the EPA earlier this month to discuss the details of the government-mandate. Information about the meeting was discussed in closed session at the WWTA board meeting.
The county body is currently working on several projects to mitigate overflows and other sewage problems.
"This is Chattanooga, Tennessee's [Hurricane] Katrina," WWTA commissioner Doug Fisher said. "Public officials in New Orleans forever put off what was not a very sexy thing, reinforcing their levees. And we saw what happened there. This is our Katrina."
After the meeting, Fisher said he wanted to ensure his point was understood. The comparison was addressing how New Orleans' decision to put off levy reinforcements for years because it wasn't seen as a splashy project had expensive consequences. He believes Hamilton County's decision to put off sewage system upgrades for similar reasons has put the area into its current predicament. He was not comparing the two in terms of devastation or lives lost, he said.
During the meeting, the board unanimously approved resolutions to enter into a contract with Sak Construction for Lookout Mountain sanitary sewer rehabilitation for nearly $3.5 million and to enter into an agreement with CTI Engineers for professional services required for the Soddy-Daisy Industrial Park pump station controls and force main upgrades. That contract is for $112,000.