Leg­is­la­tors look at ban on sewer hookups


NASHVILLE — A mora­to­rium in Oolte­wah ban­ning new sewer con­nec­tions to Hamil­ton County’s waste­water sys­tem is over­flow­ing into is­suance of res­i­den­tial sep­tic tank per­mits for new home con­struc­tion in af­fected ar­eas.

With con­cerns over the im­pact on prop­erty own­ers and res­i­den­tial de­vel­op­ers, the lat­est con­tro­versy in the years­long strug­gles of the county’s Wa­ter and Waste­water Treat­ment Au­thor­ity is now mov­ing into the Gen­eral As­sem­bly.

At the be­hest of the Home­builders As­so­ci­a­tion of Greater Chat­tanooga, Sen. Todd Gar­den­hire, R-Chat­tanooga, and Rep. Patsy Ha­zle­wood, R-Sig­nal Moun­tain, hope to plug the lat­est leak with leg­is­la­tion.

It’s sched­uled for con­sid­er­a­tion this week in House and Sen­ate com­mit­tees. Wor­ried en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, how­ever, al­ready are ask­ing ques­tions about the po­ten­tial im­pact of any new sep­tic tank ap­provals on drink­ing wa­ter qual­ity.

WWTA’s lat­est woes stem from the Ten­nessee Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Con­ser­va­tion’s Novem­ber direc­tive to the sewer au­thor­ity to im­pose a mora­to­rium in ar­eas of east­ern Hamil­ton County, one of the fastest-de­vel­op­ing sec­tions of the en­tire county.

The is­sue there, TDEC of­fi­cials said, is the WWTA’s

il­le­gal re­lease of two mil­lion gal­lons of raw sewage into Rogers Creek in a sin­gle year. State reg­u­la­tors in­formed the sewer au­thor­ity that it had to im­pose a mora­to­rium on new sewer con­nec­tions in the Oolte­wah area be­cause of the over­flows.

WWTA of­fi­cials had been plan­ning to build a new sewage treat­ment plant on Ma­han Gap Road to han­dle in­creased de­mand from new de­vel­op­ment. But amid an up­roar from nearby res­i­dents, a ma­jor­ity of Hamil­ton County com­mis­sion­ers re­fused to is­sue a spe­cial per­mit for the plant.

So the sewer au­thor­ity said it would de­fer any de­ci­sion on a fu­ture site — and the money to pay for it — to the com­mis­sion. Mean­while, WWTA of­fi­cials are ex­plor­ing ex­pand­ing ca­pac­ity in their sys­tem, as well as those of Col­legedale and Chat­tanooga, to cope with ex­pected rapid growth and fix leaks and spills.

And the agency al­ready faces a loom­ing fed­eral con­sent de­cree that could cost $245 mil­lion to rem­edy years of Clean Wa­ter Act vi­o­la­tions and mil­lions of gal­lons of sewage spilled into lo­cal creeks and streams.

Gar­den­hire’s and Ha­zle­wood’s bill is sched­uled for con­sid­er­a­tion this week in House and Sen­ate com­mit­tees. En­vi­ron­men­tal groups, how­ever, have ques­tions about the po­ten­tial im­pact of new sep­tic tank ap­provals on drink­ing wa­ter qual­ity.

“Ba­si­cally, with all this stuff go­ing on with the sewer mora­to­rium and the WWTA and the sewer con­flict with EPA, the county is not is­su­ing any [sep­tic tank] per­mits,” Gar­den­hire said. “This just al­lows some­body to build a home with a sep­tic tank.”

Ha­zle­wood said as she un­der­stands cur­rent law, “if you’re in an area that’s served by a sewer where there’s a mora­to­rium, you can’t get a per­mit for a sep­tic tank prior to the sewer be­ing avail­able.”

State law re­quires home­own­ers with sep­tic tanks to con­nect to a sewer sys­tem if the ser­vice is avail­able. The co­nun­drum here is that, although the county sewer sys­tem is tech­ni­cally avail­able in parts of east Hamil­ton, the mora­to­rium pre­vents new hook-ups to the sys­tem.

The race is on to do some­thing.

In ad­di­tion to al­low­ing sep­tic tanks to be used in ar­eas im­pacted by the mora­to­rium, the bill re­quires prop­erty own­ers and home builders to tie into a sewer sys­tem within 90 days of the mora­to­rium be­ing lifted.

Asked about the bill, TDEC spokes­woman Kim Schofin­ski said depart­ment of­fi­cials “are cur­rently re­view­ing the bill and do not have a po­si­tion at this time.”


The law­mak­ers’ Sen­ate Bill 178/House Bill 16 deals with people un­able to con­nect to a pub­lic sewer sys­tem due to a mora­to­rium. It doesn’t im­pact just Hamil­ton County, it would ap­ply to any sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion across the state where there is a mora­to­rium.

The bill is sched­uled for dis­cus­sion Tues­day in the House Agri­cul­ture & Nat­u­ral Re­sources Sub­com­mit­tee and Wed­nes­day in the Sen­ate En­ergy, Agri­cul­ture & Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee.

Scott Ban­bury, con­ser­va­tion pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor for the Sierra Club’s Ten­nessee chap­ter, said last week the group has sev­eral con­cerns about the bill as drafted.

“Places like Hamil­ton County have taken over re­spon­si­bil­ity for sep­tic fields be­cause it’s bet­ter to han­dle this stuff via an ac­tual sewage treat­ment sys­tem,” Ban­bury said.

Sep­tic tanks, typ­i­cally placed un­der­ground, are used to col­lect sewage. They al­low waste to de­com­pose through bac­te­rial ac­tiv­ity be­fore drain­ing it by means of a leach­ing field in­tended to pu­rify the wa­ter.

Ban­bury said he and oth­ers are wor­ried about prob­lems such as when un­der­ground lime­stone is eroded.

“Putting in sep­tic tanks can some­times work and some­times not work,” he said.

Ban­bury also said the group wants to en­sure any per­mits is­sued “fol­low the best guide­lines, the rules that the state of Ten­nessee has set up in terms of do­ing soil test­ing, what we call ‘perc’ test­ing.”

That’s in­tended to en­sure a sep­tic field “would ac­tu­ally be able to cap­ture that waste and not have it drop out or fall un­der­ground into wa­ters that might re-emerge in sur­face wa­ters,” Ban­bury said.

Oth­er­wise, he cau­tioned, it could “pos­si­bly cause prob­lems in terms of the in­take of drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies.” More­over, he said, leak­ing or over­ca­pac­ity might oc­cur in ar­eas where there has been “over­build­ing” of sub­di­vi­sions with houses re­ly­ing on sep­tic sys­tems.

“Then prop­erty val­ues go down,” Ban­bury said. “No­body wants to buy a house that has like a stinky swamp … be­hind it.”

As filed, the bill says that “if any per­son is un­able to con­nect to a pub­lic sewer sys­tem be­cause the depart­ment or a lo­cal govern­ment places a mora­to­rium on any fur­ther con­nec­tions to the pub­lic sewer sys­tem, then the com­mis­sioner shall is­sue a per­mit to the per­son for the in­stal­la­tion of a sub­sur­face sewage dis­posal sys­tem.”

The bill then says a per­mit holder “shall dis­con­tinue ser­vice to the sub­sur­face sewage dis­posal sys­tem and con­nect to the pub­lic sewer sys­tem within ninety (90) days of the mora­to­rium be­ing lifted.”

Bill Moll of Red Bank, the Sierra Club’s con­ser­va­tion chair­man, said Sun­day that group has a num­ber of con­cerns, in­clud­ing the bill’s lan­guage that the com­mis­sioner “shall” is­sue a per­mit for a sep­tic tank.

Moll noted the bill as filed also says noth­ing about prospec­tive home­own­ers be­ing no­ti­fied about the re­quire­ment to hook up to the county sewer sys­tem if and when prob­lems are re­solved.

“We’re not say­ing we op­pose the bill,” he said. “We have some ques­tions.”

Moll is also con­cerned the bill has no re­quire­ment that prospec­tive buy­ers be no­ti­fied that they won’t be able to use their sep­tic sys­tems when WWTA is able to han­dle it and be per­son­ally li­able for pay­ing costs to hook up to the sewer sys­tem. Ty­ing into the sys­tem can be ex­pen­sive, he said.


Ha­zle­wood, Gar­den­hire and lo­cal home builder Ethan Col­lier, pres­i­dent and CEO of Col­lier Con­struc­tion, say they hope to re­solve con­cerns with an amend­ment to the bill that is ex­pected to be filed as early as Mon­day.

The amend­ment should “clar­ify that any kind of per­mit­ting” for sep­tic tanks “will have to meet all state and lo­cal re­quire­ments,” Ha­zle­wood said. “This will just be an op­por­tu­nity for some­body who has a lot and they want to build a house on it but there’s a sewer mora­to­rium.”

To get a per­mit “you’ll have to put in the right kind of sys­tem for the prop­erty and there may be some that can’t be per­mit­ted, I don’t know, but you’d have to meet all those re­quire­ments,” Ha­zle­wood said. She noted that once a sewer is avail­able “you have to tap into it,” de­scrib­ing the bill as “kind of an in­terim to al­low de­vel­op­ment.”

Gar­den­hire said changes also would re­quire dis­clo­sure to prospec­tive home buy­ers about the mora­to­rium as well as the re­quire­ment to hook up to the county sewer within 90 days once is­sues are re­solved.

“That way the buyer is not blind­sided,” he said. “There will be a dis­clo­sure state­ment that ev­ery­one has to sign.”

Col­lier, who is gov­ern­men­tal af­fairs di­rec­tor for the Home­builders As­so­ci­a­tion of Greater Chat­tanooga and also vice pres­i­dent of the Home Builders As­so­ci­a­tion of Ten­nessee, said he’s talked to home builders across the state who are im­pacted by mora­to­ri­ums.

“If there’s a sewer mora­to­rium, you can’t build that house un­der cur­rent state law be­cause you can’t con­nect to that sewer as long as there’s a mora­to­rium in place. This leg­is­la­tion al­lows you to still build your house and in­stall sep­tic sys­tems in­stead of the re­quire­ment that you be con­nected to the sewer, which you would be un­able to do in the event of a mora­to­rium.”

While “tech­ni­cally a mora­to­rium on con­nect­ing to the sewer, it is prac­ti­cally a mora­to­rium on new home con­struc­tion,” Col­lier said. Sep­tic tanks are noth­ing new in a state where there are any num­ber of ru­ral coun­ties as well as ru­ral por­tions of ur­ban coun­ties, he noted.

The ex­pected amend­ment should ad­dress con­cerns, Col­lier said.

WWTA Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Mark Har­ri­son said while he has “lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of the bill,” the “goal is to al­low people to use their prop­erty, to build a home on their prop­erty. The WWTA doesn’t want to take some­one’s choice to build on their prop­erty away from them.”

Based on the sewer au­thor­ity’s un­der­stand­ing of the bill, Har­ri­son said, “this is a good com­pro­mise for some­one who’s stuck in that co­nun­drum, who’s un­able to build be­cause we have a mora­to­rium.”

He said, how­ever, that the agency would pre­fer flex­i­bil­ity on the 90-day re­quire­ment for new homes to tie into the sewer sys­tem when it can han­dle them.

“If it turns out 180 days are bet­ter, we don’t have to change state law, we can change au­thor­ity pol­icy,” he said.

The new hookup mora­to­rium is only the lat­est set­back to the lo­cal sewer au­thor­ity.

In ad­di­tion to that and the county com­mis­sion’s re­fusal to ap­prove the rec­om­mended sewage treat­ment plant in Oolte­wah, the agency also faces an an­tic­i­pated con­sent de­cree with the fed­eral govern­ment, ex­pected to cost some $245 mil­lion due to years of Clean Wa­ter Act vi­o­la­tions.

Mean­while, cur­rent de­lays in lo­cat­ing the planned $45 mil­lion sewage treat­ment cen­ter in Oolte­wah are spurring the agency to look at build­ing stor­age tanks for waste­water and big­ger lines to ship the waste to Chat­tanooga’s Moc­casin Bend Sewage Treat­ment Plant from ex­ist­ing lines, as well as new ones ex­pected to be needed.

But there’s also talk about sell­ing off the WWTA to pri­vate in­ter­ests, a move Rep. Mike Carter, R-Oolte­wah, be­lieves wor­thy of ex­plor­ing, the Times Free Press re­ported last month.

Con­tact Andy Sher at [email protected]­freep­ress.com or 615-255-0550. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @AndySher1.

“Ba­si­cally, with all this stuff go­ing on with the sewer mora­to­rium and the WWTA and the sewer con­flict with EPA, the county is not is­su­ing any [sep­tic tank] per­mits. This just al­lows some­body to build a home with a sep­tic tank.” – TODD GAR­DEN­HIRE, R-CHAT­TANOOGA

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