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City sewer polluting Barton's Creek
Feb 17, 2005 12:00 am
The City of Lebanon's problems with its wastewater treatment system are impacting the water quality of a major local stream, helping to earn Barton's Creek the worst rating on a current federal watch list.
And though some of the documented violations of federal regulations for wastewater treatment date back to the late 1990s, city staff are still struggling to bring the plant into compliance.
"The problem didn't develop over night," Lebanon Public Works Commissioner Jeff Baines said Tuesday."It's not going to get fixed overnight."
Pollution of Barton's Creek may be tied to an ongoing criminal investigation into the city's sewage treatment plant.
State and federal records show city public works staff have been fighting to meet federal standards at the Lebanon Sewage Treatment Plant since the late 1990s. Perhaps the primary problem facing the plant – something state officials refer to as "chronic" overflow of the sewer system – is partially responsible for Barton's Creek ending up on a federal watch list.
According to a 2004 draft of a federally mandated watch list for Tennessee streams and lakes that are "water quality limited" because of pollution, Barton's Creek and Sinking Creek in Lebanon are streams rated at a level 5, the worst rating possible.
The list, refered to as the Tennessee 303(d) List, shows both streams are polluted in part by "collection system failure."
Sinking Creek was the subject of a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation water quality warning in October 2001. Signs posted along the body of water – which runs through the heart of the city – warned of discharges of raw sewage into the creek from businesses.
The city sewage system has been the target of two other actions by TDEC in the past year, including a $100,000 fine in late 2004 because of what state officials called "chronic, significant non-compliance and overflows in the sewage collection system" in an April 28 letter.
The letter in question from TDEC Environmental Program Manager Chris Moran shows the federal Environmental Protection Agency requested the state begin enforcement actions against city government that resulted in the fine. The fine was later reduced to $12,000 based on the city taking steps to address its compliance problems.
More recently, TDEC and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents raided the Hartmann Drive plant this month, seizing records and serving a search warrant alleging plant manager James "Butch" Arnold falsified records turned in to the state and committed criminal acts.
Sources close to the criminal investigation told The Lebanon Democrat on Tuesday they expect the matter to go before a Wilson County grand jury in March. Those same sources have said pollution of Barton's Creek is likely an issue in the state and federal probe of the city facility.
Moran told the newspaper the collection system failure polluting the East Wilson County creek was the ongoing overflow problem with the city sewage system, noting no other collection systems exist in Lebanon.
"Generally what that means is you have an overflow from a pump station, and when they do overflow it will go into that creek," Moran said, refering to Barton's Creek. "It would be the city's collection system."
'The refrigerator is still not operational.'
A survey of records shows some of the problems resulting in the hefty 2004 fine against the city date back to 1999, and involve the use of incorrect methods for testing the waste processed at the plant prior to it being discharged into the Cumberland River.
A Sept. 10, 2003, visit to the city sewage plant documented in a memo on file in TDEC offices and obtained by the newspaper states "deficiencies" at the plant all involved "failure to follow EPA approved methods."
The memo, from TDEC Chemist Barbara Loudermilk, notes sampling and testing of waste leading to the defiencies are in part tied to problems discovered in an April 12, 1999, inspection of the plant by the state.
"Sample collection has not changed much since the April 12, 1999, Performance Audit Inspection (PAI) inspection," Loudermilk writes in the memo. "The Wascon samplers are connected to an old Westinghouse refrigerator where the samples are collected. The refrigerator is still not operational. Since the samples were not cooled to (less than) 4 degrees Celsius or less as they were being collected, the integrity of the sample has been jeopardized.
"Because of these findings, the previous composite samples for both the influent and effluent should be considered questionable, possibly unrepresentative, and therefore invalid," Loudermilk added.
The September 2003 inspection resulted in the December notice of violation that same year which eventually brought about the 2004 fine, levied at the federal EPA's request.
Other state correspondence to the city documents literally hundreds of overflows of the sewage system and plant between 2002 and 2004. The correspondence notes many of the overflows were self-reported by the city.
Baines makes the case his department is being "very proactive" and making great strides toward satisfying state and federal officials over the history of problems with the city's sewage treatment operation.
Baines said his office is in the process of filing the third in a series of four reports with the state documenting how the city will deal with the chronic overflows.
He also said he is personally bothered by the prolonged problems at the plant, noting simple deficiencies such as the failed refrigerator skewing the validity of testing sample should have been fixed.
"I live and work here," Baines said with concern in his voice. "I was born and raised here. This has been an issue for me for a year and a half."
He also expressed a level of frustration at the numerous reports required by the state as part of the consent decree over the fine and related violations. The city agreed to a level of advanced planning to deal with the overflows in the consent decree with TDEC in order to barter the fines to $12,000 from $100,000.
"With all due respect, they (the reports) don't fix anything," Baines said.
Baines said the city's growth has a great deal to do with the overflow problem, saying stormwater runoff is often the greatest culprit.
The state 303(d) list backs up Baines' assertions, listing urban development and related stormwater runoff as other contributing factors to the pollution in Barton's and Sinking Creek.
"We treat four million gallons a day on a dry day," Baines said. "It comes out of the roof with any real rainfall. … That doesn't make it OK. When you get into such a growing curve like what we have had, you get behind on routine maintenance."
Managing Editor Clint Brewer can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 13 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.