Federal, state and Fort Smith officials plan a conference call Monday (June 25) to discuss progress and possible modifications to the estimated $480 million federal consent decree.
Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken and Utilities Director Jerry Walters will take part in the conference call with representatives from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), Department of Justice (DOJ), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Arkansas Attorney General’s Office.
Geffken revealed the date of the call to the Fort Smith Board of Directors at a Friday (June 22) strategic workshop. Geffken said the goal is to test the rigidity of the consent decree, with the goal of “giving our director and staff the latitude to determine what is necessary to move forward in a reasonably cost-conscious way.”
Geffken said the city has spent around $100 million to satisfy the terms of the decree thus far, which doesn’t count monies the city spent towards correcting its wet weather sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) prior to formally entering into the agreement. Walters said the main issue that remains is dry weather SSOs, which the city is dealing with, in part, through its Fats, Oils & Grease (FOG) program, which went into effect in January 2017.
In November, the Board approved a five-year capital improvement plan for the city’s wastewater program that will budget $153.8 million in consent decree spending from 2018 through 2022, an average of $30.76 million per year. The consent decree mandates improvements to the city’s 500 miles of sewer lines and 23 pump stations. This does not count necessary non-consent decree improvements and maintenance, estimated at an additional $48 million over the coming five-year period.
Since the consent decree has taken effect, sewer rates in the city of Fort Smith have gone up 167%, and as Geffken said in a recent interview with Talk Business & Politics, “If the consent decree stays as it is, we’ll need to increase rates (again).”
Geffken wasn’t ready to “show his hand” on what the city will be pushing for with the Monday conference call but said the city would likely have a press release following the conversation. In the previous interview, Geffken said the city will ask “for more than just an extension of time” to pay for the improvements scheduled for completion by 2027.
“It’s the general layout and form of the consent decree as well — the required work the current consent decree has us performing in an illogical and inefficient manner. That’s what needs to be changed as well.”
Expanding on the “illogical” comment, Geffken said it relates to “the sequence of events” and that “You don’t want to say, ‘Do I need extra capacity when you haven’t had the chance to clean out all the pipes yet. That’s what the consent decree does.”
Geffken continued: “We’re catching up for 30-plus years of lack of work, lack of maintenance, lack of everything. That’s why we’re in the consent decree. So the best we can do is to say it needs to make sense and it needs to be financially affordable to the residents of the city of Fort Smith, and that is the goal. We can’t get rid of the federal Clean Water Act. However, we now have the ability and the opportunity to bring our case to the EPA and DOJ and say, ‘This is not affordable in its current format. You’re asking us to do work in an inefficient progression, and it’s wasting scarce resources of our residents.'”