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Parts of Hamilton County have been under sewer moratoriums, which prohibit new connections to particular sewer lines, for a decade or more.

Sewer overflows pollute creeks and streams, violating state and federal regulations. The moratoriums prevent new development from connecting to affected sewer lines, and the rehabilitation work to correct the issues is expensive.

"The Hamilton County sewer system typically experiences over 200 weather-related sewer overflows each year," Dick Gee, board chairman of the Hamilton County Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority, said last year. "The overflows can contaminate local streams and potentially pose a public health risk. Addressing the issue is costly; however, it is the right thing to do and it is a requirement of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act."

All of Signal Mountain, aside from a few pre-approved properties and those connected to the decentralized wastewater treatment facility on the mountain, has been under a moratorium since 2008. A portion of Red Bank and 80-90% of Soddy-Daisy have been under a moratorium for about as long, according to Michael Patrick, director of the authority, which serves most of Hamilton County outside the city of Chattanooga.

Lookout Mountain and a portion of East Ridge are under a moratorium, as are several unincorporated areas in East Brainerd and Ooltewah, Patrick said.

What is a sewer moratorium?

When sewer overflows occur from a particular manhole more than five times in a 12-month period, sewer permits in Tennessee require that any lines located upstream from that manhole that are connected to the same line as that manhole must be placed under a moratorium. When an area is under a moratorium, no new sewer connections can be added.

Are moratoriums related to rising sewer rates?

Recent sewer rate increases, including the 9.8% increase that went into effect in October and the 12% increase in 2020, are to cover the more than $200 million in sewer rehabilitation projects planned under the wastewater authority's legal settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agreement calls for a work plan to correct excessive sewer overflows, including the overflows that led to some areas of Hamilton County being put under sewer moratoriums.

Most funding for the rehabilitation work comes from ratepayers. Other funding sources could include American Rescue Plan funds, for which wastewater infrastructure is a specified use.

Hamilton County received $35 million in rescue plan funds in August and will receive another $35 million that can be used for a variety of things, including sewer projects. Additional funding will come to the counties and the municipalities in the state from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which is setting aside some of those funds for water and sewer infrastructure, and how those funds will be distributed will be decided in January, Patrick said.

"There's potentially a significant amount of money available, but at this point I don't know how much that is or when it will be available," Patrick said. "So I have a number of projects in design to take advantage of this money whenever and however it may come."

While many more projects are in the works, the wastewater authority is actively pursuing projects in Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy, Lookout Mountain, East Ridge and in unincorporated areas of East Brainerd and Ooltewah.

Negotiations with the EPA have been ongoing for more than five years and are now down to the final details, Patrick said. He expects they will reach a final agreement in February, but it's unclear what the effective date will be. The legal settlement agreement is expected to be enforced for 15 to 20 years.

How does an area get out of a moratorium?

If an area under a moratorium goes 12 months without an overflow, the wastewater authority can petition the state to lift the moratorium.

Or, if rehabilitation work is done in the area under a moratorium, such as repairing a manhole near a creek or removing a storm drain connection, a report is submitted to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in order to establish credits. The number of credits received is based on the type of rehabilitation work, and a certain number of new connections can be added to the area under the moratorium based on the number of credits received for the work. Once all credits are used, the area would go back under the moratorium.

The wastewater authority did some rehabilitation work in the area of East Ridge under the moratorium and acquired credits for that work that are now being used to allow new connections. Work was done in Red Bank that Patrick said he hoped would be enough to lift that moratorium, but the state indicated that more flow monitoring needed to be performed in order to formally establish credits, as was done with the East Ridge project.

The work in Red Bank last year lessened the frequency of overflows from that particular manhole, but it still occurs often enough that the moratorium is still in place. He said the high amount of rainfall last year was partially to blame for the project's failure to lift the moratorium.

How are sewer projects prioritized?

Projects are in the works in all parts of the authority's service that are under a moratorium, and those projects vary by length and funding source.

"To some extent they are prioritized in the order the moratorium occurred," Patrick said. "It's also based on frankly just pure development pressure. If I'm not getting a lot of calls from the community leaders or developers or whatever in a particular area, they might go to a lesser priority than the ones where I am getting a bunch of calls."

The Soddy-Daisy and Red Bank moratoriums began around the same time, and the projects to fix them are somewhat concurrent, he said.

Project timing is a factor in how projects get funded. Wastewater is a specified use for American Rescue Plan funds, and Patrick hopes to use as much of those funds as possible on rehabilitation projects.

"Right now I do not know how much of that funding the WWTA is going to receive, and that's going to make a big difference," Patrick said. "What has been happening over the last six months or so, I have been putting out projects to get designs to be shovel-ready, so when funding comes, whatever the amount is, I'll have the ability to put forth a number of projects, and I'm doing those in every area that the WWTA services that I can."

The Red Bank project currently in design, which is projected to cost around $10 million to complete, will occur this year one way or another, Patrick said.

"It is my first priority right now," he said, which is partially because the authority has been trying to fix the problem for years but previous efforts were unsuccessful.

Interest in developing the former Red Bank Middle School property at 3715 Daylton Blvd. was also a factor in moving that project forward, Patrick said. Although Red Bank city officials are considering leaving the old middle school property undeveloped, the sewer project is already underway, and the overflows need to be fixed regardless of how the property is used, he added.

"There's a Soddy-Daisy project that will probably be next on the list, just because of the development pressure that's going on in Soddy-Daisy," Patrick said.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

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