Consent Decree: The WWTA Is Holding The County Commission Hostage And The Ransom Is Mahan Gap

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What is a consent decree? As I understand it, it is an agreement/settlement between two opposing sides without admission of guilt or liability.  In this case, it involves the WWTA and the EPA, Department of Justice, TDEC, and possibly other Tennessee authorities.  What does it do?  It helps protect the WWTA from future costly lawsuits.  It allows the WWTA to develop a plan (agreed to by the EPA) to correct current violations on a timetable of their design and agreed to by the EPA.

Is a consent decree unique to the WWTA?  No.  Knoxville signed theirs in 2003, Nashville in 2007, Chattanooga in 2012, Memphis in 2012, and Atlanta in 1999.  You can almost say that consent decrees between cities and the EPA are common!  Any search on the topic will show pages of results.   The WWTA has been developing theirs since 2014.  The consent decree document has become a useful tool to give local governments political cover to make the difficult political choice to spend taxpayer money on very un-exciting items that have been ignored for years like water and sewer infrastructure.  It is often flaunted to show the taxpayer that government has no choice.  It can be presented as something to fear, when, in fact it protects the WWTA and puts the habitual offender in charge of the design and implementation of their own rehabilitation plan.

  And now according to the WWTA, and agreed to by the EPA, it’s time to pay the piper.

The consent decree will require a lot of money.  Hamilton County has an excellent bond rating.  (We all should be proud of that.)  Money needed to fund this project will not hurt the bond rating.   The document itself does not ensure that the stipulations of the agreement will be met.  It will take excellent execution, supervision, and discipline to meet the obligations and benchmarks promised to the EPA.  And there is the red flag.   As an example of poor execution, priorities, and expediency, let’s examine the Snow Hill Pump Station.   It is located near ground zero.  It is near the place where the North Hamilton County Community and the WWTA have drawn a line in the proverbial sand.   It is a “pump station poster child” for the WWTA.  In a memo generated by TDEC in June of 2016 regarding the North Ooltewah Master Plan ”the Snow Hill Pump Station is currently at capacity… pump station is not large enough to accommodate larger pumps so it must be replaced… SSO’s would occur.  Mark Harrison stated there is money for this project but the budget has not been approved yet.  Board need to approve the upgrades to Snow Hill Pump Station.”  It is now December 2018 and the pump station has had several SSO’s (sanitary sewer overflows) as predicted by the WWTA.   Every attempt to fix the pump station has failed.  It is still running on temporary pumps.  WWTA employees show up there almost every day.  The local residents continue to tolerate the noise of the temporary pumps and the smell of the open station.  The local golfers no longer can use one of their greens; pedestrians have to stay clear of “posted” contaminated areas.  Our once pristine waterways continue to absorb and catch WWTA’s mistakes.  Needless to say, the North Hamilton County community has no confidence in the ability of the WWTA to properly execute the consent decree or oversee a $45+ million sewage plant project. 

The county will be offering their bonds to fund our sewer project upgrades and to fund the new sewage plant.  (They have also been asked to fund the $3 million acquisition cost of the Mahan Gap site).  The projected $45 million will be underwritten by all of the Hamilton County taxpayers and the money will be placed in the “trusted” hands of the WWTA.  Who has the authority to hold the WWTA accountable to fulfill the WWTA’s obligation of the consent decree? Not the Mayor. Not the County Commission.  Is there any elected official that has authority over the WWTA?  The answer is: not one. 

As Commissioner Tim Boyd stated recently on his Facebook page “It seems the WWTA Board members and those advising the WWTA decided the best approach was to say little and create a “time sensitive crisis”.   Now the WWTA has their crisis.  It is called a consent decree.  This document will be the weapon of choice for the WWTA and its supporters to get what they want.  And what they want most is Mahan Gap. 

Brent Smith

NHC United for Responsible Growth


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