Fort Smith Administrator Carl Geffken said discussions with the Environmental Protection Agency Jan. 29 went well. Geffken met with Region 6 EPA Administrator Ken McQueen in Dallas to argue the city’s case for federal consent decree relief.
McQueen, appointed Aug. 5, 2019, is a presidential appointee who came to the job from the energy industry. He most recently worked as the New Mexico Cabinet Secretary for the Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Depart from 2016 to 2018.
“It went well. We had a good meeting and pled our case,” Geffken said.
In arguments for relief, Geffken referenced that Fort Smith has a 25% poverty rate and 25% of the children in Fort Smith schools suffer food insecurity.
“Our median household income is not $40,000, or we have not seen results of that. If it is that, it would be a 9.5% jump in one year,” Geffken said. “We are at or near 2% guideline level set by the government (regarding the amount of the medium income that can be dedicated to water and sewer bills.)”
Paul Calamita, with Richmond, Va.-based AquaLaw, told Fort Smith city directors during a presentation Jan. 28 that the city has made a “tremendous commitment” toward fixing sewer system issues mandated by a federal consent decree and it may be time to ask a federal court for relief. The city has spent at least $135 million on sewer system improvements since 2015 because of the federal mandate.
After years of failing to maintain water and sewer infrastructure to federal standards, the city entered into a federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency in late 2014. The consent decree requires the city to make an estimated $480 million worth of sewer upgrades over the course of 12 years. Funding for consent decree work has come in part from water and sewer bill increases, which are up 167% since 2015. Funding for water and sewer work also comes from bonds supported by sales tax revenue and revenue from wholesale water buyers.
Calamita, who is working with six other cities on consent decree relief, said he is “cautiously optimistic” the city will obtain relief because it has a recent history of “good faith” in meeting obligations of the decree. Based on what he sees with other cities operating under consent decrees, Calamita said Fort Smith has done more than enough to prove a commitment to the consent decree to now seek a “right-size” modification going forward.
Geffken said he thought the hour-long meeting went well and that McQueen was sympathetic to the city’s case. The meeting was only information sharing, Geffken said, noting only McQueen, McQueen’s chief of staff and himself attended.
“This was not a negotiation. There were no attorneys present,” Geffken said.
When addressing the board last week, Calamita said a disadvantage in seeking relief is the city’s history prior to 2015 with respect to addressing water and sewer system problems. Calamita said the “poor” history has come up in calls he has had with the EPA about Fort Smith. Geffken said McQueen did not bring up Fort Smith’s history, but said he did.
“We acknowledge what happened in the past, but we are here now. We need help to remain compliant now,” Geffken said.
He also brought up that before the city entered into the consent decree, it spent a lot of money.
“The city was told that the federal government intended to pursue a consent decree in 2009. Prior to the consent decree, the city spent about $200 million on storage tanks and equalization basins to reduce our wet weather SSO (sanitary sewer overflows). Now we have to focus on our dry weather SSO,” Geffken said.
The EPA has offered to work with the city to help them comply with the consent decree, Geffken said.
“We understand we need to comply (with the consent decree) and have done so. We want to continue to do so in a way residents can afford. He listened intently,” Geffken said.
He said he was hopeful the city will hear something soon from McQueen.