What Is That Smell?

Monday, March 25, 2019

A septic tank functions beautifully until it doesn't. When a septic tank or field line ceases to function properly, E. coli and other bacteria will leak. It can move into the surrounding land or ground water. Anyone who has lived next door to a home with a progressively failing septic system will eventually notice the smell of sewage when it discharges. Raw sewage can leak for long periods of time before it's bad enough to "stink up" the neighborhood. Sadly, many people in Hamilton County have contaminated liquids oozing from their septic systems with no awareness that it is happening. Who repairs a septic system when they don’t know it’s leaking? No one.

When County Mayor Coppinger said the lack of a sewage processing plant would hinder growth, he wasn't lying. When he spoke of hindering growth he was likely speaking of area-wide growth. If a landowner cannot deal with sewage, growth and development will be inhibited. Access to a sewage treatment plant for commercial structures and development of community amenities are usually required. It is hard to find many modern hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, churches or similar entities with connections to septic tanks. Even if all sewage discharge could be funneled into a septic tank, a septic tank must discharge to multiple field lines in lengths appropriate to the amount of discharge produced. Therein lies the problem. The exception to this occurs in third world countries.

Certainly a home built on a large lot might accommodate the installation of a septic tank and field lines. However, the soil on the lot must have the ability to percolate and filter sewage through field lines while having it all remain contained below grade on the lot that is generating the waste water. If a lot will not perk, passing sewage onto a neighboring lot or into a steam is not acceptable. A large lot down the street from where I live does not perk. There is no sewer service. The owner cannot sell it. No house can be built. The property taxes are still due every year.

If one owns a lot that is low lying and the water table is shallow, then a septic tank may not be an option for use. One could own a beautiful 20 acre plot overlooking a lake and it might not be suitable for installation of a septic tank or field lines. If one cannot build a house on a large lot and connection to a sewer system is not available it will hinder growth. Containing sewage on naturally moist lots can present problems. Low lying properties are not the only problem. Some elevated properties cannot manage sewage using septic tanks. If one lives on top of a rocky precipice, one might be able to dynamite a hole for a septic tank, but a septic tank must have filtration field lines to deal with flow in excess of the septic tank capacity. If there is no space for field lines, then a septic system can't function properly. Either the tank will leak or the toilet will overflow. Ask the residents of Signal Mountain about septic tanks and sewer leaks.

It is illogical to think that one can always pump sewage to an existing sewage treatment plant be it in Timbuktu, China or the Moccasin Bend Treatment Plant. Eventually distance and waste processing capacity becomes an issue. Citizens should not think that temporary sewage processing overcapacity will continue to accommodate the needs of those who don't wish to build a sewer plant in their neighborhoods.

Currently, the city of Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Treatment Plant cannot handle its own residents’ sewage during a rain storm. This is why the Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant and the city of Chattanooga were sued, fined and put under an EPA Consent Decree that has and will continue to cost sewer users millions more in sewer fees for years and years to come. If this were not the case, there would be no need to require sewer users to pay increasing rates every year to build multi-million dollar sewage storage tanks. Furthermore, does it make sense to have current city residents (who pay city and county taxes) sponsor all the sewer bonds to build more storage tanks so county residents in unincorporated areas can send additional sewage to the same plant? Does it make sense to assume the Moccasin Bend Plant can accommodate all the new growing parts Hamilton County? Why should the Moccasin Bend Plant make plans to accept more unincorporated sewage, when it has not yet made sewage service available to all city residents? Current sewer rate payers should ask themselves (and local officials) how accepting more sewage will affect their sewer bills.

Please don't assume this author opposes the development of a consolidated countywide sewer system. When the sewer benefits are evenly shared, it's fair to share sewer costs. It's probably a very good idea to have a countywide system, but know it will require more than one location for processing facilities to accommodate all of Hamilton County's future sewage. Please understand that continuing to piggy back onto the plant at Moccasin Bend will come at ever increasing storage and processing costs since Chattanooga has no plans to ever separate the combined sanitary and storm sewers. Does everyone understand that pumping sewage further distances adds additional cost? Current sewer users should not be expected to pay more freight for those who refuse to support a sewer plant in their backyard. Furthermore, some city residents feel justified in having strong opinions on this topic. I live in the city of Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend Sewage Plant is close to my back yard. Sewer service is not yet available on my street.

It's 2019 and time to face facts. Building more subdivisions which will be dependent on septic tanks does not make long term sense. Like it or not, the game of “kicking the can down the road” eventually ends. When government officials make the wrong decisions (or kick cans) solutions are always more expensive. Current sewer users should already know this because their rates skyrocketed after the last EPA Consent Decree. Fines and high rates should serve as a reminder of can kicking. Eventually, unsuspecting residents will be required to pay to dispose of the cans piled up or sewage puddled up in the neighborhood. Like it or not, all highly populated areas will require a waste water treatment plant in the near geographic area. Why wait for the smell?

Deborah Scott


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