published Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Chattanooga sewer bill hits $250 million


by Cliff Hightower
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield announces the penalty assessed to the city for outdated sewers Tuesday at City Hall. Behind the mayor, from left, are Jerry Stewart and Michael Marino.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield announces the penalty assessed to the city for outdated sewers Tuesday at City Hall. Behind the mayor, from left, are Jerry Stewart and Michael Marino.
Photo by Tim Barber.

BY THE NUMBERS

$250 million: What Chattanooga estimates fixes will cost and has pledged to spend.

$476,400: What EPA fined Chattanooga. Half will be spent on a green infrastructure retrofit project in Highland Park.

$800,000: What Chattanooga will spend on a stream restoration in lieu of other penalties.

Source: EPA and Chattanooga Clean Water Act agreement


WHAT'S NEXT

The agreement will be available for public review and comment in about two weeks. After the 30-day public review period, the agreement is finalized.

Source: City of Chattanooga

A $250 million bill now looms for anyone who uses the Chattanooga sewer system, and they will have 15 years to pay it.

Ratepayers across Chattanooga, Hamilton County and North Georgia will shoulder the burden of a $251 million-plus agreement city officials have made with federal regulators to fix a sewer system that has dumped more than 354 million gallons of raw sewage into the Tennessee River since 2005.

"We all want clean water," Mayor Ron Littlefield said. "It takes a price for clean water."

A consent degree handed down by the federal government Tuesday spelled out a multitude of fixes Chattanooga must complete over the next 15 years.

Besides $250 million in sewer and stormwater runoff improvements, the city must complete an $800,000 stream restoration project and pay $476,400 in civil penalties. Half of the penalties must be paid in cash to the federal government, and half is to be used for a green infrastructure project.

But the settlement -- more than 18 months in the making with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Justice, Tennessee and a conservation group called Tennessee Clean Water Network -- largely is intended to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows.

"People will be noticing a benefit," from the settlement's new requirements, said Renee Hoyos, director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, which sued the city in 2010 for repeated untreated sewage overflows to the Tennessee River.

Government and conservation officials have said the overflows were often caused by stormwater runoff choking the city's combined sewer and stormwater pipes.

"Some people may complain that the combined stormwater sewers are not separated [by the required fixes]. But combined sewers are not illegal," Hoyos said. "The problem in Chattanooga is just that the overflows are not treated. This requires treatment, and that's really good."

The agreement states all of the fixes must be completed over 15 years in two phases.

The first remedies, to be made within five years, include completing a series of capital projects to address leaks and overflow issues that swamp the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant and its systems. Early fixes may also include rehabilitating the sewage treatment plant release gates to the Tennessee River.

The city also is now mandated to develop a green infrastructure plan. Such plans typically include rain gardens, roadside swales and green roofs.

Paying the costs

Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield, said paying for the improvements could require the city to raise sewer rates by as much as 10 percent a year for 15 years, but any increase must be approved by the City Council.

Steve Leach, administrator for the city's Department of Public Works, said officials likely will determine proposed sewer rate increases as needed.

"In other words we will re-evaluate every year at budget time to determine what if any increase is required," he said.

About 90,000 customers use the Chattanooga system -- 61,000 in the city and about 29,000 outside the city, said Jerry Stewart, director of the city's waste resources division.

Those outside users include the Hamilton County Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority; Fort Oglethorpe; Lookout Mountain, Ga.; Ringgold, Ga.; Rossville and Collegedale.

Each of the regional systems also is in the process of working with EPA, through a voluntarily agreement that requires an assessment of their sewer programs, according to Chattanooga officials. The goal is to reduce overflows in the other systems, as well, as to reduce the amount of waste they contribute to the Moccasin Bend treatment plant.

Littlefield called the settlement and its requirements a "fair deal."

And Leach said that while the price tag seems large, in the long run there will be needed improvements. And at least two will be very visible.

An $800,000 stream restoration project near Agawala Drive in Brainerd will significantly improve water quality in a 1,500-foot tributary of South Chickamauga Creek.

And a $238,200 green infrastructure retrofit of streets in Highland Park will add new streetscaping with pervious pavement, tree boxes, bio-swales and bio-retention facilities that will divert stormwater runoff away from sewers and a nearby stream -- Dobbs Branch, which flows into Chattanooga Creek.

"People will be seeing some good things from this in their neighborhood," Leach said.

Councilwoman Pam Ladd admitted she was at first taken aback by the $250 million figure. She said "it was a little higher" than what she was expecting. But the city now faces a federal mandate.

"We have to do it," she said. "We have no choice."

Paying for flushes

The agreement resolves both the Tennessee Clean Water Network lawsuit and another lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA.

But it won't represent the first big money spent by the city and sewer ratepayers to keep their flushes out of the streets and the Tennessee River.

Chattanooga officials have said the city has spent more than $100 million fixing the sewer system since the early 1990s.

Included in that was $8.5 million on leaks, $15 million on capacity enhancement projects and $25.8 million on the expansion of the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant

Another $40 million went to separate some stormwater drains from sewers and re-engineer some combined sewer overflow facilities -- gigantic underground concrete stormwater/sewage holding facilities that slow runoff so it gradually can be pumped to the wastewater treatment plant rather than overflowing to the river.

From 2003-10, the city spent still another $13 million on five additional combined sewer overflow projects.

Despite all the work, in 2005, regulators with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation hit Chattanooga with a citation listing 23 deficiencies.

In 2008, another inspection identified 57 violations of the city's stormwater permit.

And in 2011, the state fined Chattanooga $384,500 for problems with the sewer system.

The piping that drains the area includes about 1,268 miles of sewer lines, some that date back to the 1890s.

The sewer system also includes 70 miles of combined sewers, 72 custom-built pumping stations, eight combined sewer overflow treatment facilities and the Moccasin Bend sewage treatment plant.

It takes a village

Officials were quick to note Tuesday that the settlement won't just cost Chattanooga residents.

Since 1952 the city's sewer and stormwater system has been serving a number of other nearby metropolitan areas.

In addition to taking the waste collected by the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Authority from cities like East Ridge, Lakesite, Lookout Mountain, Ridgeside, the Chattanooga sewer system and treatment plant also drain Collegdale, Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold and Rossville; the town of Lookout Mountain; and parts of Catoosa County, Dade County and Walker County in Georgia.

The entire system covers about 200 square miles and handles the flushes and runoff from the businesses and homes of about 400,000 people.

Those cities and the county likely also will face rate increases from Chattanooga that will be passed on to the outlying businesses and residents.

Bill Raines, president of the Raines Group and a critic of recent years' stormwater fee increases in Chattanooga, said the city needs to think through its sewer rate increases and implement them in a steady and planned fashion with no surprises.

"Anytime you have an extra cost for doing business, it just makes you less competitive," he said. "The lessons I learned off the stormwater fee is that they need to look at this in a more comprehensive way. They need to come up with a plan, get community input and go about it in a businesslike fashion. They don't need to spring it on the residents and businesses."

Chattanooga officials said they conducted a series of public meetings in April to solicit public input before signing the settlement.

Now the signed agreement will be available for public review and comment in about two weeks, Beeland said. After the 30-day public review period, the agreement will be finalized.

Chattanooga is the last of the large cities in Tennessee that have had to address sewer violations through a settlement with EPA.

Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis have entered into similar settlements with EPA in the last decade.

In 2008, Nashville and Department of Justice officials announced a settlement expected to cost the metro area between $300 million and $400 million.

That cost has escalated to about $1.2 billion, according to Stewart.

A similar EPA action against Knoxville resulted in an order for a $540 million remedy.

A recent Memphis agreement calls for about $200 million in fixes.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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