BLUFF CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Nearly 9,000 gallons of water containing raw sewage flowed out of a manhole and into Boone Lake on the rainy night of Nov. 30, 2019. That water crossed property owned by Mary Moore, and it wasn’t the first, 10th or even 20th time.
Moore’s daughter, Robin, said the overflows occur when Bluff City’s nearby “Igloo pump station” can’t keep up with a combination of stormwater and sewer effluent during heavy rains.
“You can’t use your yard, it stinks, they act like it’s okay for it run out,” Moore said. “It works on your nerves, because when it rains and you already know it can’t keep up with any stormwater, you can’t sleep at night.”
If Bluff City met the Jan. 31, 2020 deadline for fixing the problem — mandated in a settlement agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) in late 2016 — the Moores wouldn’t have to worry.
A federal USDA loan and increased customer rates have let Bluff City pour more than $2 million into an attempted fix, but so far engineering firm Mattern & Craig’s work hasn’t yielded a full solution. After three-plus years, Bluff City’s not going to make the deadline, Mayor Irene Wells said Wednesday. The city also has yet to submit a formal letter requesting an extension, though that would have been due Jan. 1.
Wells said Wednesday it will be a while before the problems are solved.
“I think they’re going to be rectified,” Wells said of the problems. “They (TDEC) are concerned about the problem and they know that we are concerned about the problem also … but it’s not going to happen overnight. I hate to say that, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Concern from many quarters
The Moores aren’t the only people concerned about the problem. Val Kosmider is immediate past president of the Boone Lake Association (BLA) and has followed the situation for several years. He said the Igloo pump station is the primary problem now, though not the only one.
“It’s been a long slow slog to get that pump (Igloo) up and running even as it should, and unfortunately the specs for that pump don’t appear to be large enough to handle the stormwater runoff and the sewage when we get a deluge type rain,” Kosmider said.
“Whatever’s left in an emergency situation, that will flow into Boone lake, and to our way of thinking that’s just unacceptable. To think that Boone Lake could be a receptacle under any circumstances for sewage is just a non starter in our opinion.”
State Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said Thursday that he’s met with residents, town representatives, TDEC officials and others since concerned residents brought the matter to his attention a couple years ago. Lundberg said he’s not satisfied with the pace of progress.
“This thing has been moving glacially slow,” Lundberg said. “Residents shouldn’t have to worry about sewage overflows every time it rains hard.”
Long before Lundberg became involved, TDEC and Bluff City were frequent pen pals. The city must report overflows, and in the 18 months between Feb. 18, 2015 and August 21, 2016, 18 overflows were reported. Ten of those involved the Igloo pump station, including one incident in which at least 15,000 gallons (Feb. 3, 2016) reached Boone Lake.
Just weeks before that major overflow, a Jan. 18, 2016 letter from TDEC to Wells mentioned that the city’s Igloo pump station “meets the definition of a chronic overflow point” based on reports from calendar 2015. Chronic overflow points are those with more than five events per year.
A May 3, 2019 letter from TDEC referenced eight overflows between May 2018 and May 2019 at the manhole near Mary Moore’s house. The same manhole had a Halloween night overflow that lasted 47 minutes and released 1,785 gallons. The Nov. 30 incident lasted almost four hours.
Residents, BLA – how much longer?
Robin Moore said “Phase I” of Bluff City’s efforts to remedy its water and sewer problems didn’t get the job done. So far, neither has Phase II. “It’s been going on for so long I think enough’s enough. We haven’t used our back yard since 2015. They need to put pressure on them to fix it.”
BLA has tested water near the Moores’, and enlisted the help of East Tennessee State University to test the soil as well. He said results showed unhealthy levels of e coli.
“It’s not very healthy to say the least,” Kosmider said. “It really is extraordinary that that situation has been allowed to fester for all these many years.”
A Jan. 23 letter from Dane Cutshaw of TDEC’s Johnson City field office to Wells lists a half dozen comprehensive information items the city will have to include in any extension request. TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said Wednesday the agency “cannot comment on potential enforcement action” should Bluff City not comply with the settlement order or not submit an extension request on time.
Kosmider said he’s as frustrated by TDEC as he is by Bluff City.
“They’ve been a little less than rigorous it seems in imposing the fines,” he said. “They come out and they look and they say, ‘yes, this is not performing as it was expected to perform, you can’t allow sewage to run into Boone Lake.’
“They’ve assessed some fines but … they’ve waived them or they’ve been chiseled down to an amount that’s not really penalty-oriented.”
The 2016 settlement agreement included a fine of $25,760. All but $3,864 of that, however, was waived as long as Bluff City met a set of requirements (listed on pages 8-10 of the settlement). These included developing a TDEC-approved “correction action plan”; submitting an approved “capacity, management, operation and maintenance plan”; submitting annual summary reports of all overflows “and corrective actions taken to prevent and remediate overflows during the previous calendar year”; and submitting a “sewer overflow response plan.”
The annual report submission is to continue until the rehabilitation or collection system is completed. Otherwise, TDEC’s Kim Schofinski said in a Thursday email, “The contingent penalties … were not assessed by TDEC, as those items were completed by the City.”
A way forward?
As for Bluff City, Kosmider said they’re “stuck in a very, very difficult position. The sewage system is old. It is one of the variety where stormwater and sewage combines to go into the system and then it gets pumped to the Bristol wastewater treatment plant.”
That said, Kosmider met with the United States Department of Agriculture, which provided the loan for Phase II of the sewer project initiated in 2016. “They assured me there were public funds available if the community was willing to work with them but they needed to have cooperation and coordination … and they would find grant money, not loan money.”
Such a scenario might have the potential to get Bluff City over the hump sooner rather than later, and without stressing local ratepayers. Bluff City’s 2018 audit noted that to comply with a corrective action plan from the state’s water and wastewater financing board, which referenced its “financially distressed water and sewer systems,” Bluff City increased water rates by 9 percent in 2016, another 9 percent in 2017 and a further 5 percent in 2018.
“The USDA people made it pretty clear that, you come and you work with us, we’ll find an extra million or million and five to get this project done the way it should be done and put this situation to bed once and for all without the onus of putting it back on the ratepayers,” Kosmider said.
Lundberg said he has reached out to both TDEC and USDA “to help Bluff City with any and all available grant funding. It is a very large project – it’s not a simple fix.”
In the meantime, he said, shorter-term solutions are in order. “They have emergent issues that happen literally every time it rains. How can we take care of those in some decent manner so that residents, and obviously the general environment, doesn’t have to deal with sewage going through yards or streets. That to me is the most pressing thing, and it’s just gone on for so long.”