BLUFF CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Gordon Justice stood in his back yard Wednesday, 100 feet or so from Bluff City’s Igloo Pump Station in the 4400 block of Bluff City Highway.
Bright sunshine shone down, but a strong breeze foretold the evening’s coming storm system. Justice, a retired firefighter who has lived in his home since 1975, knew what any appreciable amount of rainfall would mean for the station, which pumps sewage through Bluff City’s system and toward a rendezvous with the Bristol system.
“More than likely tonight if we get the inch and a half to two inches of rain that they’re calling for this pump station over here is gonna be inundated with stormwater,” Justice said.
Sure enough, around 8 p.m. Wednesday, a red light began flashing at the station. The pump was reaching its capacity.
Without something to prevent it, backflow would occur soon, with a good possibility the manhole 200 yards upstream would overflow and send raw sewage-contaminated stormwater across Mary Moore’s property and into Boone Lake.
The scenario has repeated itself at least two dozen times over the past five years, including 10 overflows between February 2015 and August 2016, which led to a settlement agreement with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).
Two USDA loans and roughly $2 million worth of attempted solutions later, Bluff City is sending significantly less volume to Bristol as a whole. But when heavy rains occur, so much stormwater infiltrates sewer lines that the pump alarm triggers, the septic trucks get called, and more often than not, manhole 2D16 at 4434 Bluff City Highway overflows.
It happened eight times from May 2018 to May 2019. It’s occurred five more times from November 2019 through April 13 of this year, when an estimated 105,000 gallons overflowed, much of it reaching Boone Lake.
“I’m very frustrated because I can’t imagine living next door and seeing this roll through the yard,” said State Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol). “I am frustrated for the folks downstream here who don’t want that coming into the waters where they’re whether it’s fishing, swimming, whatever. That’s a hazard.”
A year ago, Lundberg began conducting quarterly meetings with TDEC, Mattern and Craig (the engineering company responsible for the work) and Bluff City officials. At that point, the TDEC settlement agreement’s deadline for Bluff City to fix its sewer problems was months away.
But that Jan. 31 deadline for the fix to be complete came and went, with Bluff City asking for an extension. In February the city approved expending the final $600,000 of a USDA loan on pump station improvements, some line replacement and other work.
‘Band aids’ and the Catch 22
Based on that planned work, which is “proposed to reduce or eliminate the frequency of an overflow at MH216,” TDEC approved an extension to Jan. 31, 2022.
Lundberg isn’t convinced the next round of work will permanently fix the problem.
“They’ve done a lot of band aids and it is unfortunately not a quick process, so it’s not one of those in six months it’ll be fixed,” Lundberg said. “It is going to take a lot of money.”
Many residents, including Mayor Irene Wells at one point, wondered why the town couldn’t simply expand the capacity of the Igloo pump station. The answer is that Bristol can’t typically handle the amount of flow that would occur when the station needs that capacity level because its own “I and I” (infiltration and inflow) problems from stormwater push its system to capacity (and sometimes beyond) during intense rainstorms.
“That’s why you … say, ‘ok, what do we do if we’ve got so much water and we’ve got to move it and it can’t go this way?’ Well the default right now is it’s going to go into the lake. Well let’s do stage three, which is put it into a tank.”
Such a solution could be very expensive, Lundberg said. Bluff City already had to hike its water/sewer rates by 25 percent from 2015-2018. Its current USDA loans, for more than $2.4 million, extend to 2056 and 2058. But Lundberg said he believes good relationships have been established among all the players and some grant money might be an option.
“If we can put together a good plan and all involved from the engineers and Bluff City think it’s a good move, then we can proceed and figure out how do we get the funds for that,” Lundberg said. “That’s obviously the big question.”
The track record so far doesn’t inspire much confidence in Justice. “I think what’s frustrating to most people is … the amount of money that we spent trying to fix this problem and we’re still not ahead of the game,” Justice said.
He pointed to the expense for septic trucks as an example.
“You know it’s not cheap and it’s just money that we’re throwing out the door for really no reason.”
Water customers already pay a relatively high price to fund the work that’s been done so far. The system had underfunded its infrastructure for years when the state forced rate increases on it in 2015, leading to three years of hikes.
Justice said his latest bill was more than $90. A customer who lives inside the Bluff City limits and uses 3,000 gallons in a month pays $62.90 in a combined water/sewer charge. In Johnson City, the cost for the same usage is $42.46.
“Money’s tight in our municipality as well as it is bigger cities, so we have to spend it wisely and I don’t think we’re thinking this problem up here through well enough,” Justice said.
Lundberg said the jury’s out on that one. He isn’t ready to say TDEC has been overly lax, and he accepts the engineer’s contention that the system has improved as a whole.
The total gallons sent to Bristol dropped about 8 percent in 2018 compared to 2017, and was running lower again through the first 10 months of 2019.
Will half measures add up to a whole fix?
The progress isn’t sufficient to impress Justice, who wonders aloud whether it’s time for major changes to the city’s approach.
“An engineer shows up and says, ‘well, here’s what you need,’ and then when he drives off with the check in his hand it isn’t what you need,” he said. “It didn’t fix it … It’s just frustrating to know that someone got paid to fix this problem and it’s not fixed. Period.”
He suggests taking Lundberg’s insistence on a good plan to another level. “All those things need to be figured out beforehand, and before that bill is paid we need to see that it’s going to work. Once we know it’s going work and that is sufficient to fix the problem, then pay the bill.”
Lundberg said he understands people’s skepticism at this point. He even said it may be time for Bluff City to consider serious discussions with a larger system, Bristol or Johnson City, if the next year to 18 months doesn’t yield a solution. And to date, in his mind, “probably not enough communication has gone on” with residents.
“I think the residents would be okay as long as they’re communicated with, they understand what’s happening and the ball is moving forward,” Lundberg said.
The status quo, improvements included, isn’t enough, he said.
“The bottom line, it’s absolutely completely unsatisfactory that it runs through anybody’s yard. Number two, it’s absolutely unsatisfactory that anything discharges into the lake that’s not from normal runoff.”
Wells said Thursday Bluff City is continuing to work toward a solution, but said she couldn’t offer a concrete timeline.
As for Wednesday night, the system held, at least according to Mary Moore’s daughter, Robin, who said the only water running down the sides of the manhole had fallen from the sky.