Chattanooga will be required to spend approximately $250 million to pay for a massive fix to the city's antiquated sewer system over the next 16 years, and ratepayers will have to "carry the burden."
The city was issued a consent decree Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice after nearly two years of discussion and negotiations surrounding the fix. With a timetable for projects effective immediately, sewer usage rates are expected to rise as soon as October.
Mayor Ron Littlefield told reporters Tuesday that although the agreement—which also includes the Tennessee Clean Water Association—was not yet fully approved, he thought the deal reached by parties this week would be final.
Littlefield added that he thought the settlement was "fair."
"We have been anticipating this for quite some time, and we've been preparing, knowing that it was coming," Littlefield said. "Chattanooga is the last of the large cities in Tennessee to face this situation."
The current rate for 5,000 gallons of sewer usage in the city is $26.37. In October, the rate will increase to $27.68 per 5,000 gallons, with an additional jump to $28.94 per 5,000 gallons in April of next year.
Littlefield said increases to the rates would continue over time but added that his goal would be for every rate increase to be less than 10 percent of the previous rate.
"Ratepayers will have to carry the burden on this," he said. "We fortunately have a relatively low rate as far as our sewer rates are concerned. The $250 million will be phased in over a period of time, and rates will be increasing from time to time. People will note that we started raising rates gradually some years ago in anticipation of this, and it's our intent to proceed carefully and evaluate these projects as we go forward and keep the increases under 10 percent."
On top of the $250 million, taxpayers will cover $238,000 in civil penalties, which Littlefield said was anticipated by the city. The fix also calls for $800,000 to be spent on a "supplemental environmental project" and an additional $238,000 to be spent on a "state project" of new green infrastructure in Highland Park.
Chattanooga's combined sewer and wastewater system, last organized in 1952, serves a region expanding well outside the city and into parts of Georgia in an area encompassing approximately 200 square miles. In some parts of the city, sewer lines construction dates go back to the 1890s.
According to the mayor's office, the city began addressing issues related to overflows in the system in the 1990s, when it spent more than $8.5 million on inflow and infiltration control projects, $15 million on capacity enhancement projects, and $25.8 million on the expansion of the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant. An additional $13 million was spent on five additional projects between 2003 and 2010.
Because of flaws in the current system, millions of gallons of raw sewage have flowed into the Tennessee River in recent years. Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director of Tennessee Clean Water Network, said in a news release that the upgrades would benefit the natural environment.
"This mutual partnership between EPA, the state, Tennessee Clean Water Network and Chattanooga will help protect the health of the Tennessee River and its tributaries and the people who use and enjoy them," Hoyos said. "We applaud the city for its commitment to environmental stewardship."
Chattanooga is not the first city in Tennessee to undergo a massive overhaul of its sewer system. In 2004, Knoxville agreed to $540 million for upgrades, Nashville agreed to between $300 and $400 million in 2007, and Memphis agreed to $200 million in repairs this year, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press report.
The settlement will be made available for public review and comment in approximately two weeks. After that, only a 30-day public review period is required before the agreement becomes finalized.