A federal and state stink over hundreds of illegal sewer overflows will cost the city of Chattanooga, TN, more than $251 million to resolve, under a settlement agreement announced this week.
The city has agreed to pay a $476,400 civil fine; invest about $250 million to overhaul its sewer system; and perform an $800,000 stream restoration project to satisfy a 102-page federal-court consent decree released Tuesday (July 17).
City of Clearwater
|The City of Clearwater, FL, is among many communities nationwide that are footing major bills to upgrade their sanitary sewer systems.|
The decree resolves numerous violations of the federal Clean Water Act, including:
• More than 671 sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs);
• 25 discharges of sewage during dry weather;
• Prohibited bypasses;
• Operation and maintenance failures; and
• Effluent limit violations.
The decree requires Tennessee’s fourth-largest city to assess and rehabilitate its entire sewer collection system to eliminate overflows within 15 years, completing most of the work in the first 10.
The city of 170,000 must also revamp its maintenance and management practices and begin to implement a green infrastructure plan to reduce stormwater flows.
Sewer System Crackdown
Chattanooga is just the latest community to feel state and federal wrath over its sanitary sewer overflows, which have become a critical problem for aging wastewater systems nationwide.
The EPA estimates there are 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows—discharges of raw sewage from municipal sewer systems—nationwide each year.
That estimate does not include backups into buildings or so-called “Peak Flows,” which occur when heavy snow and rain trigger influent flows that overwhelm treatment capacity and overflow into waterways.
|The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s wastewater system a D- in 2009.|
Keeping raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of U.S. waters is one of the EPA’s national enforcement initiatives for 2011 to 2013. The crackdown focuses on reducing sewer overflows, which present a major threat to human health and the environment.
Most of the overflows are due to breaks and blockages in mains and lines from deferred maintenance and from decades-old, corroded water infrastructure, according to the EPA.
In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s wastewater infrastructure a grade of D– and said the system needed an investment of $255 billion in the next five years. New York State alone has conservatively estimated the cost of repairing, replacing, and updating its municipal wastewater infrastructure at $36.2 billion over the next 20 years.
Few communities in these strapped times have that kind of money, which is where the federal stick has been coming in. EPA and the Justice Department have been going to court to secure agreements, like the one with Chattanooga, to force municipalities to upgrade their water systems and increase their use of green infrastructure.
Green infrastructure involves the use of soils, vegetation and natural processes to store, infiltrate and evaporate storm water to prevent it from getting into the sewer system.
‘Working with Communities’
EPA has obtained Chattanooga-type agreements in recent years with Mobile and Jefferson County (Birmingham), AL; Atlanta and Dekalb County, GA.; Knoxville and Nashville, TN; Miami-Dade County, FL; Northern Kentucky Sanitation District #1 and Louisville, KY, among others.
“The EPA is working with communities across the country to address sewage overflows that impact the health of residents and impair local water quality,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau
|As in many communities, Chattanooga’s waterways are paying the price for its failing wastewater system.|
The Chattanooga agreement will improve that community’s health and environment for many years, said Ignacia S. Moreno, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
“This is another example of how we are working toward the goal of clean water for all communities through the vigorous enforcement of the Clean Water Act throughout the United States,” said Moreno.
The settlement prioritizes neighborhood sewer rehabilitation projects and stormwater controls in the urban core, to reduce overflows of untreated sewage.
The proposed consent decree with Chattanooga is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval before becoming effective.