An overflow crowd of Ooltewah residents opposed to a sewage plant "in their back yard" recommended on Wednesday that it go further north, perhaps Meigs County where TVA is building a major power center.
Officials of the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority (WWTA) said Mahan Gap Road is the best location and least expensive. Without a new plant, development in North Hamilton County is going to be stymied, it was stated.
The County Commission, which heard several hours of discussion and debate, is due to vote next Wednesday on whether to allow a special exceptions permit for the site.
Commissioner Chester Bankston, who has expressed firm opposition, says one or more private waste handling firms is ready to step in and buy WWTA.
Commissioner Katherlyn Geter expressed concerns about possible health effects from the facility, which WWTA wants to put on a 152-acre site. She said she had learned of a number of WWTA failings, including its customer service.
Commissioner Chip Baker said his office is a quarter mile from the city's Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant and he has not problems with it, but he said it appeared that a number of other steps needed to be taken prior to the vote. He said officials needed to confer with TDEC and with the Hamilton County Soil Conservation District, which issued a letter with concerns about soil contamination.
WWTA officials said they met with TDEC early on, but had not heard from Soil Conservation.
Mark Harrison, WWTA executive director, said the WWTA had met with the closest neighbors to discuss a possible buy out of their homes. He said the same homes would then be marketed to someone who might be willing to live near the plant.
He said the plant would have three shifts of four to five workers. He said there would be one sludge truck trip a week.
Scott McDonald, whose local engineering firm is involved in the project, said it was learned that a 1971 study sited a plant near the present desired location.
He said the Mahan Gap site, including a seven-mile pipe to the Tennessee River, would cost about $45 million, but it would be over $60 million to locate the plant at the county landfill or further north. He said if the WWTA is not allowed to build at the site, it would still use it for a large sewage containment facility. It would be pumped from there to wherever the plant is allowed.
Mr. McDonald said the WWTA is pumping effluent, in some cases, over 30 miles to the Moccasin Bend facility. He said this plant would be much smaller than Moccasin Bend, handling 10 million gallons per day in the first phase and 20 million gallons in the second phase. He said Moccasin Bend has "much older technology."
Design and development of the plant would take 2-3 years and it would be 5-7 years until it was in operation.
Mr. McDonald said some of the property is in a floodplain, but just about 40 acres is needed for the actual plant site. He said the only road would be off Mahan Gap Road.
Dean Moorehouse, president of Hamilton County United for Responsible Growth, said he had the signatures of 5,529 households who do not want the plant nearby.
He said a portion of the site regularly floods, including in recent days. He said the planned road would be in the flood area as well as some of the treatment buildings, according to the site plan. He said the project might be in violation of long-standing TVA stream covenants.
Brent Smith said Mahan Gap is at a hub for several growing communities. He said it someday could be "a dynamic intersection" if the plant is not put there.
One resident called it "a very bad decision for our community."
Another, who had built his own house 20 years ago, said with the plant in place his son with asthma would no longer be able to visit and his father with cancer would no longer be able to stay with him. He said, "Move the plant where there are no houses. I don't care if it costs $20 million."
Al Jolly, who has had a liver transplant, said if the plant is built he would no longer be able to take walks without wearing a mask.
Shannon Betts said the plant would include "3-6 acres of open sewage."
Mike Moon, WWTA chairman, said an upcoming $245 million consent decree with the EPA was not brought on as a bargaining chip in favor of the sewage plant proposal. He said WWTA could meet the consent decree without the plant, but he said it was needed to handle a large influx of growth north of the site.
He said no funding was available for the extra $20 million or more needed for a Meigs County plant.
Both the Homebuilders Association and the local Realtors Association came out in favor of the WWTA proposal.
The commission, citing the importance of the issue, allowed much more discussion than it normally does.
The room was full about a half hour before the 9:30 a.m. start and it was announced that no one else could go in. It lasted until 2:20 p.m.
County Clerk Bill Knowles said, "This was the longest meeting I remember in my 44 years serving as their secretary."
Here are the full comments from Mr. Harrison:
“The community and the Hamilton County heard our presentation and the case we’ve made for a wastewater treatment plant, at the proposed location. And you’ve learned about the pending consent decree. What you haven’t heard, is why you should trust us to do what is necessary in the days, months and years to come.
"This year marks a significant milestone for the WWTA. It is our 25th anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, The Hamilton County Commission created the WWTA to address regulations established through the Clean Water Act, and, to meet the sewer infrastructure needs of our community.
"From the moment we were founded, though, we were addressing an ever-growing system. Seems, from where I stand today, that from the beginning we, as an organization, were playing catch up. Shortly after we began our operations, the City of Soddy Daisy joined our system. They were followed by Lakesite, Ridgeside, East Ridge, Signal Mountain, Red Bank, and Lookout Mountain.
"It is our honor to serve all of these communities, but with each of these additions, our team of professionals not only had to continue to meet the needs of those initially a part of our system but the needs of cities and municipalities who joined us because their elected officials understood that we could accomplish, together, what each municipality could not accomplish alone.
Two years ago, I was selected to be the WWTA’s Executive Director to replace the late Cleveland Grimes. The first order of business was a review of our policies, our customer service, and to prioritize the needs that had to be met. Yes, there were significant issues with our system. There still are. Yes, we’ve experienced overflows. These are well-documented and I’m not making excuses for them.
"What I am here to do is to tell you that each and every day sewer professionals in Hamilton County do all they can to meet the needs throughout our community. As the Executive Director, I realize that we have been operating reactively instead of planning for the future with rehab and renovation. But, every day we ask ourselves what must we change to be more proactive. What can we do to better serve our community?
"When the Great Recession hit, in 2009, our board at the time, made the difficult decision to keep our rates low as a way to benefit our customers. This meant that repairs were made as economically as possible and planned projects were put on hold. This decision was made with the belief that rate increases were a greater burden than on our customers could bear during that period. While our rates have risen since, we still spend anywhere from a third to half of our expense budget paying wheelage and treatment to surrounding systems. This is simply not a sustainable model.
"When legislation was introduced to do away with the agency, in 2016, the WWTA could not get a loan. Why would anyone loan money to an organization that may not exist to pay that money back? Thankfully, that effort was stopped and we could once again began to focus our attention on the most critical of our needs, but we had lost a whole year, once again, putting us behind. But we are now making those needed improvements, even as we speak.
?The Hamilton County Commission has a difficult decision ahead. It’s one that will change the course of economic development for our entire county. Doing nothing or the minimum is no longer an option. Moving the proposed site, in any direction, will add millions in additional cost that will only add to our customers’ obligations. Our customers are about to be burdened with an increase of up to 100% over the next ten years. The WWTA is doing all we can to keep these prices as low as possible while still meeting the needs of the community.
"The time of patching and making minimum repairs is over. The consent decree will rightfully require us to do more, invest more and meet a higher standard. And while many communities across the nation are having these same conversations, with an impending Consent Decree of our own, it has now become very personal to every one of us.
"If the new wastewater treatment plant is approved, the plant will have employees on site 24 hours a day seven days a week. We will have the ability for real-time monitoring to catch possible problems before they occur. We will have the ability to put infrastructure in place that is far different from existing technology currently used in our community. Simply put, it’s time to embrace new technology, construct additional infrastructure and to make the investment required to meet the needs of Hamilton County both now and in the future.
"The Hamilton County WWTA Board of Directors, staff and executive team stands ready to meet the need. I truly trust that each of you are as well.
"I’d like to thank the members of the Hamilton County Commission for their consideration as well as those in opposition who spoke so passionately about this issue. The one thing I believe we can all agree on is that we are all committed to doing what we believe is in the best interest for the future of our county. Now, it’s up to the Hamilton County Commission to lead us to the future. We trust them to make the right decision.”