Fort Smith chief blasts sewer deal
Geffken testifies in Washington
WASHINGTON — Federal and state officials “browbeat and coerced” Fort Smith into accepting costly changes to its sewer system, City Administrator Carl Geffken told federal lawmakers Tuesday.
As a result, sewer bills have soared 167 percent in the past three years, placing an unreasonable burden on a community already struggling economically, he said.
Geffken testified before two subcommittees of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The hearing was entitled “Examining Sue and Settle Agreements” and featured testimony from former Michigan Gov. John Engler and others.
Fort Smith, population 87,351, had run afoul of the Clean Water Act for years. Federal officials had been pushing the city since the 1980s to comply with federal environmental standards.
From 2004 through 2014, Fort Smith released raw sewage more than 2,000 times, dumping more than 119 million gallons of sewage into the Arkansas River and other waterways, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
All that untreated sewage affected water quality and endangered public health, federal officials said.
In January 2015, Fort Smith and federal officials announced they’d come up with a consent decree — a legally enforceable settlement designed to resolve the issues.
The price tag topped $450 million.
Since then, Fort Smith has honored the terms of the agreement, Geffken said.
“I can assure you the city has taken this consent decree seriously,” he said. “However, the city has major concerns about future compliance because aspects of it are unattainable for the city.”
Geffken singled out the Justice Department and former state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, saying they pressured the city to take the deal. McDaniel and a Justice Department spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.
When disagreements arose during the negotiation, a Justice Department attorney warned a lawsuit had already been drafted and was ready to be filed, Geffken told lawmakers.
“The city was presented with two options: Spending millions in legal fees required to contest the consent decree or accept it,” he said.
Instead of litigation, the city accepted a settlement — the “sue and settle agreement” the hearing examined.
But the resulting burden is too heavy, Geffken said. In Arkansas’ second-largest city, 29 percent of the residents have incomes below the poverty level, which is twice the national rate, he said.
They’re being forced to pay a disproportionate percent of their income on sewer services, he added.
Republican members of the Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs and the Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and the Environment wanted to know if the federal government was misusing its power.
Democrats argued the federal government plays an important role in protecting public health.
“If we’ve learned nothing else from the tragedy of water poisoning in Flint, Mich., it is that state government should not be left to their own devices to enforce health and safety regulations,” said Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress.
Third District Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers whose district includes Fort Smith, also attended Tuesday’s hearing and spoke on the city’s behalf.
Womack later said federal officials should renegotiate the terms of the agreement so it’s less onerous.
“We feel like the heavy hand of government ignores the true impacts that these decrees have on the people downstream, being the patrons of the city of Fort Smith,” he said.
The high sewer rates also make it harder to attract industry, Womack said.
“The impact here can have economic consequences that can go for decades,” he added.