Hamilton County and the customers of the county's sewer authority would be better off if the county continues to use Chattanooga's sewage treatment plant and abandons its attempt to build its own sewer plant to serve the northern part of the county, according to a citizens panel that studied sewer alternatives over the past month.
In a presentation Monday to the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority, a seven-member panel that reviewed alternative sites for a new sewer plant in the county concluded that continuing to use the city's sewer plant on Moccasin Bend would be as much as $6.3 million a year cheaper than the cost of building another sewage treatment plant anywhere around Ooltewah or north of Collegedale.
Sewage disposal in North Hamilton County would be best handled by building wastewater storage tanks and installing sewer lines to connect with Moccasin Bend rather than continuing to try to find a site for a new plant that would be both costly and degrading to nearby properties, the group concluded.
"The Moccasin Bend plant is the least-cost alternative among the 17 sites and plans we examined," said Dean Moorhouse, a co-owner of Professional Pulmonary Services who lives on Mahan Gap Road, where the WWTA proposed to build a sewer plant last year. "Using the existing plant also would have the least impact on property values in the county."
Morehouse led the study group.
The 10-page recommendation given to the WWTA on Monday was developed by Moorhouse and other critics of the WWTA's proposal last year to build a sewer plant on farmland on Mahan Gap Road. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who proposed a $45 million bond issue last year to help fund the new North Hamilton County sewer plant, asked Moorhouse last month to form a citizens group to find a better site for a new plant after county planners and county commissioners voted late last year against allowing a sewage treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road.
Mike Moon, chairman of the WWTA, said Monday night that the authority will review the panel's analysis, but he said earlier studies indicate that rising costs for transporting and treating sewage at Moccasin Bend make a new plant cost effective and essential to handle the growth in Ooltewah and surrounding areas. Moon noted that WWTA's wheeling and treatment costs rose 20 percent at Moccasin Bend last year, and further increases are likely.
"We're talking about pumping 26 to 30 miles from the northern end of the county to Moccasin Bend, and we continue to believe that for the long-term growth of the county we are going to need another sewage treatment plant," Moon said.
The study panel recommending the use of Moccasin Bend did identify three potential new sites and suggested that the abandoned East Ridge sewage treatment plant could be rebuilt for more sewage capacity. But the study suggested that all of those alternatives would be more costly and disruptive than building storage tanks and extending sewer lines to continue to use Moccasin Bend in the city.
The group didn't publicly disclose the locations of the three new sites they identified, but they did give their advice to the WWTA on those sites — one of which is owned by TVA and two of which are within a mile of the Tennessee River.
Don Johnson, a retired utility manager at TVA and another member of the study group, estimated that building a new plant, regardless of where it is located, likely would cost the typical WWTA customer $205 a year more than using Moccasin Bend to pay for the capital expense of the facility and the degradation of nearby property. With planned improvements, Moccasin Bend will have adequate capacity to handle growth in the region and is still cheaper for WWTA even after paying for extended pipes and treatment charges by the city, he said.
Johnson said peak volumes during heavy rains "are already being addressed by Moccasin Bend by adding three storage units for 10 million gallons each of capacity for wet-weather water for the entire system" and another 10 million gallon tank is planned for Lee Highway.
Mike Patrick, WWTA's interim director who previously oversaw the Moccasin Bend plant as director of Chattanooga's Water Resources Division, said the utility will consider the panel's recommendations. But Patrick said he still thinks a new sewer plant is needed in the county.
"It's not so much about whether Moccasin Bend could handle more sewage or be expanded, it's really about getting the sewage there for treatment," he said. "It's a long way from the upper reaches of northern Hamilton County by pipeline to get to Moccasin Bend. I do not personally and professionally believe that the county will be served well by one wastewater plant."
In most scenarios, Moccasin Bend will continue to provide most of WWTA's sewage treatment even if a new plant is built in a WWTA area such as Signal Mountain, Red Bank or East Ridge, Patrick said. The WWTA is already faced with a $245 million estimated price tag to meet the terms of a consent degree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That is likely to cause WWTA sewer rates to double over the next decade.
But building another sewer plant to help handle the growth of the county will only get more expensive and difficult in the future, Patrick said.
"We really can't afford to continue to kick the can down the road anymore, and we need to come up with the best location [for sewage treatment] for the ratepayers," he said.
Brent Smith, a North Heron Bay resident who also fought against the WWTA's original plant site last year, said the northern part of the county where a new sewage plant would serve have been the slowest growing in the county and most of the existing residents likely will stay on their own septic tanks and not connect with the new sewer system.
Last October, the WWTA optioned to buy 157 acres of farmland in Ooltewah to build a $45 million sewage treatment plant. The Ooltewah parcel was picked from among eight sites reviewed by the county sewer authority and was chosen because its lower elevation would help the gravity flow of sewage into the plant. The Mahan Gap road property, which the WWTA was planning to buy for $2.6 million from Danna Smith McWilliams, also had more available buffer property and no endangered species on the site.
But the proposed plant immediately ran into a storm of criticism from neighboring residents concerned about the smell from such a plant and any possible leak or environmental damage from a sewer overflow or malfunction.
In the wake of the controversy, engineer Mike Harrison stepped down as WWTA executive director in February and was replaced by Patrick, who left his city job to head the WWTA.
Chattanooga City Councilman Chip Henderson also is pushing a study of whether the city sewage system and the WWTA should be combined. Henderson asked the city attorney last week to make preparations for a benefit analysis for a potential combination of the city sewer system and the WWTA, which would have to be approved by both the city and the county.
Contact staff writer Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.