EPA issues note on Fort Smith agreement, says it will cost $255 million

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 179 views 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that the agreement with the city of Fort Smith will over the next 12 years cost $255 million “plus the cost of routine operation and maintenance.” That’s a big “plus,” which is to say it’s in the neighborhood of another $225 million.

Settling with the EPA and the federal Department of Justice on problems related to the city’s violations of the Clean Water Act could result in a tripling by 2026 of water and sewer bills for all city customers on the Fort Smith system. Water and sewer bills for Fort Smith residents could grow from an average of $40 per month to up to $120 by 2026. If a sales and use tax is implemented in 2020, the monthly rate may only increase to $103 by 2026.

“This agreement means cleaner water for the residents of Fort Smith by reducing pollution flowing into local waterways,” Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in the statement issued Monday. “EPA works with communities like Fort Smith to develop cost-effective and pragmatic solutions to protect residents from exposure to raw sewage.”

The EPA statement also noted: “This work is expected to cost $255 million plus the cost of routine operation and maintenance. Under a settlement filed in federal court in the Western District of Arkansas, Fort Smith will also pay a $300,000 civil penalty and spend $400,000 on a program to help low income areas of the city repair and replace privately owned portions of the sewer network.”

Other notes in the EPA statement included:
• This agreement resolves alleged Clean Water Act violations related to Fort Smith’s failure to properly operate and maintain its sewer collection and treatment system.

• Since 2004, Fort Smith has had more than 2,000 discharges of untreated sewage from its municipal sewage system, resulting in more than 119 million gallons of raw sewage flowing into local waterways, including the Arkansas River.

• The implementation of the consent decree will reduce discharges of 3,492 pounds of total suspended solids, 3,343 pounds of biological oxygen demand, 543 pounds of nitrogen, and 78 pounds of phosphorus from the Fort Smith sewage system each year.

• Many of the manholes and pump stations from which Fort Smith’s sanitary sewage overflows occur are in low income and minority communities.

‘PERPETUAL THINGS’
The Fort Smith Board of Directors was told on Dec. 9 that the settlement with the DOJ and EPA over the violations would cost an estimated $480 million over 12 years. On Dec. 16 the Board, by 5-2 margin, voted to approve the settlement.

Fort Smith Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman told The City Wire that the difference between the $255  million number in the EPA statement and the $480 million number presented to the Board by city staff reflects the “perpetual things” not included in the capital costs.

“Those are just the capital costs of the projects,” Dingman said, adding that the $255 million noted by the EPA does not reflect the costs to “increase and improve our maintenance practices and sustain those.”

The city has said it may have to hire up to 82 people to abide by the agreement with the EPA and DOJ.

Dingman also said the EPA did not factor in the costs of inflation and financing costs.

SETTLEMENT OVERVIEW
Of the $375 million capital costs, 39% ($145 million) is for defect remediation, 17% ($63 million) for capacity remediation, 12% ($45 million) for pumping improvement and 10% ($37 million) for engineering and professional services. Treatment, capacity assessment and current projects are also included in the capital costs.

Of the $104 million in operations and maintenance costs, 26% ($27 million) is estimated for collection system maintenance and repairs, 23% ($24 million) for extra staff and management support, 13% ($14 million) for treatment and pumping maintenance, and 13% ($14 million) for information management. The remainder will cover project management, root removal and pre-treatment work.

While the proposed settlement between the city and the DOJ is complex, the primary purpose of action is to increase capacity to eliminate wet weather overflows and address remedial defects to eliminate dry weather overflows. The time frame outlined in the city's presentation of the proposed consent decree terms extend for 12 years, giving the city time to invest the needed funds to bring the sewer system up to standard.

Under the agreement, the city must begin to monitor overflows in wet and dry weather situations and report all overflows to the Environmental Protection Agency. The assessments must focus on finding the dry weather blockages and intrusions in lines that cause overflows during dry periods. These can include grease blockages and roots that have grown into water lines over periods of years or decades. Testing private lines of residential and commercial users could involve smoke testing.

EPA STATEMENT
Following is the entire statement from the EPA:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Justice and the state of Arkansas announced that the city of Fort Smith, Ark. will upgrade its sewer collection and treatment system over the next 12 years to reduce discharges of raw sewage and other pollutants into local waterways.

This work is expected to cost $255 million plus the cost of routine operation and maintenance. Under a settlement filed in federal court in the Western District of Arkansas, Fort Smith will also pay a $300,000 civil penalty and spend $400,000 on a program to help low income areas of the city repair and replace privately owned portions of the sewer network.

“This agreement means cleaner water for the residents of Fort Smith by reducing pollution flowing into local waterways,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “EPA works with communities like Fort Smith to develop cost-effective and pragmatic solutions to protect residents from exposure to raw sewage.”

“This settlement will achieve long overdue improvements in the city’s sewer system that will substantially reduce the number of sewage discharges and help assure that the citizens of Fort Smith reside in a safe and clean environment,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Sam Hirsch for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resource Division.

This agreement resolves alleged Clean Water Act violations related to Fort Smith’s failure to properly operate and maintain its sewer collection and treatment system. Since 2004, Fort Smith has had more than 2,000 discharges of untreated sewage from its municipal sewage system, resulting in more than 119 million gallons of raw sewage flowing into local waterways, including the Arkansas River. These types of discharges, known as sanitary system overflows, cause serious water quality and public health problems. Fort Smith also violated limits for discharges of various pollutants from its Massard and P Street wastewater treatment plants numerous times over the last decade.

Many of the manholes and pump stations from which Fort Smith’s sanitary sewage overflows occur are in low income and minority communities.

To cut sewage discharges, Fort Smith will conduct a comprehensive assessment of its sewer system to identify defects and places where stormwater may be entering the system. The city will also repair all sewer pipe segments and manholes that are likely to fail within the next 10 years, develop projects to improve its sewers’ performance and implement a program to clean the system of debris like grease and tree roots, which can exacerbate sewage discharges. Fort Smith will also implement a water monitoring program to determine whether human waste is entering and being discharged from the city’s stormwater system.

The implementation of the consent decree will reduce discharges of 3,492 pounds of total suspended solids, 3,343 pounds of biological oxygen demand, 543 pounds of nitrogen, and 78 pounds of phosphorus from the Fort Smith sewage system each year.

High levels of these pollutants can reduce oxygen levels in water bodies, which can threaten the health of aquatic plants and animals. Too much nitrogen and phosphorus in the water causes algae to grow faster than ecosystems can handle. Large growths of algae, known as algal blooms, contribute to the creation of hypoxia or “dead zones” in water bodies where oxygen levels are so low that most aquatic life cannot survive.

Sanitary system overflows and backups of raw sewage onto private property poses risk to human health and the environment. Untreated sewage contains organic matter, bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxics and metals, which may cause illness or even death when humans come into contact with them. Most illnesses that arise from contact with sewage are caused by pathogens, which are biological agents that cause disease or illness in a host. The most common pathogens in sewage are bacteria, parasites, and viruses.  They cause a wide variety of acute illnesses including diarrhea and infections.

Keeping raw sewage and contaminated storm water out of the waters of the United States is one of EPA’s National Enforcement Initiatives. EPA is working to reduce discharges from sewer overflows by obtaining commitments from cities to implement timely, affordable solutions.

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