Leader Blues

Friday, December 26, 2008

TOP STORY > >Sewer troubles dog Sherwood

Leader staff writer

Sherwood is a community that believes in investing in quality of life. An impressive ballpark complex, a spacious recreation center, and a welcoming seniors’ center are but a few of the amenities that Sherwood residents can point to with pride.

Less of a priority perhaps has been Sherwood’s wastewater system.

Persistent violations of state and federal regulations triggered a visit in December 2007 by investigators from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). When they found that a long list of violations dating to 2004 had indeed not been remedied, the ADEQ fined the city $23,000 – since reduced to $15,500 – and issued a consent order last month to ensure a speedy resolution.

City officials insist they had absolutely no inkling of the violations until late last January.

The mayor and members of the city’s sewer committee say that Michael Clayton, who as former city engineer was responsible for oversight of the wastewater utility, never told them of its problems. Clayton allows that “maybe there was not an announcement from a roof top,” but insists “it was no secret” at city hall that there were problems at the sewage treatment facilities. Clayton says he did not intentionally ignore the citations, but that inadequate staffing is partially to blame for repairs not made.

Mayor Virginia Hillman says that the first she knew of the longstanding violations was two days before Clayton resigned at the end of January to start his own business. She feels blindsided by problems that were brewing long before she took office in August 2007.

“I only found out because I called ADEQ about something else, and they told me,” Hillman said. “It is really no excuse, all that has happened.”

Cecil Robertson, who has served on the sewer committee for 50 years, and Amy Sanders, a committee member for 10 years, say that Clayton never shared any reports indicating non-compliance with water-quality regulations.

“I suppose he decided to not mention it for some reason,” said Sanders, who became committee chairperson a few months ago. “We have been upset about it, but our aim is to comply, and that is what we are working towards.”

Hillman says she fully appreciates the action of the ADEQ and is ready to do what it takes to satisfy the agency.

“It is like when you get onto your kids; the first time, you have a little mercy, but the second time, you are frustrated,” she said.

“This gives the appearance we don’t care, but we intend to take care of this.”

In June, the city hired a new engineer, Ellen Norvell. Under her direction, the wastewater utility staff of seven has received additional training and corrected the most egregious problem at the two treatment plants – repeated releases of treated wastewater into neighboring streams with fecal- coliform bacteria up to twice the legal limit.

State and federal regulations mandate regular testing of the discharged effluent by an independent lab, because of the potential threats these pollutants pose to public and environmental health.

The north plant, located in Indianhead Estates at 19 Algonquin, releases its effluent into a creek that feeds into Kellogg Creek, which flows into the Bayou Meto and the Arkansas River. The south plant, located at 2000 Stafford, releases effluent into Woodruff Creek, which flows into Five Mile Creek, then the Bayou Meto and Arkansas River.

According to the consent order, the treatment plants violated allowed effluent limits 18 times for fecal coliform between September 2006 and June 2008 and for ammonia nitrogen 22 times between August 2005 and November 2007.

The consent order also describes a release of 100,000 gallons of raw sewage into Silver Creek from an overflowing manhole on Silver Creek Drive. The ADEQ learned about the problem from a citizen two and a half days after the overflow started. By law, a wastewater utility must report such overflows within 24 hours to the ADEQ.

Municipalities are required to alert the public about excessively high bacteria counts in waterways. The consent order mandates the city of Sherwood in the future to have a process for public notification about sewer overflows and fecal-bacteria pollution of its waterways.

According to Norvell, the wastewater staff has now dealt with the majority of the violations cited in the consent order – inoperable or malfunctioning equipment and the lagoons, inadequate monitoring and record keeping, improper storage of effluent samples, too high sludge levels in treatment lagoons, and overgrowths of vegetation on lagoon levees that threatened their stability.

However, resolution of the most costly problems is on hold until a study is done of the entire sewage collection and treatment system and the city’s future needs. Reconstruction of weakened lagoon levees and a breach in one, as well as replacement of outmoded equipment and aging sewer lines, are expected to take considerable time and money.

No one is sure yet what all the repairs may cost. Norvell has ventured that the tab could run as much as $2 million to $7 million. City officials sound confident that there will be enough money for the work, some of which will come from a surplus of tax revenues. But there is discussion of increasing wastewater rates, which have not been raised in 20 years.

Staff capacity is an issue that the city may have to confront if it wants to have an effective wastewater utility. Clayton says he tried to tackle problems with the lagoon levees, but was stymied by a crew that dwindled to four workers and the fact that levee repairs could only be done during summer months. With limited manpower, repairs to the sewer lines, some of which are 50 years old, has been largely complaint-driven. Norvell would like a more systematic approach to line testing and maintenance, but that will require hiring contract labor or more regular workers.

Not all of Sherwood’s wastewater is treated by its two plants. Sewage from older areas of the city is piped for treatment at a North Little Rock facility. The two Sherwood plants handle wastewater from 4,700 customers. But all sewer lines are the responsibility of the Sherwood utility, which has a crew of seven full-time workers.

By comparison, Jacksonville’s wastewater utility has 35 full-time employees and 8,900 customers. In addition, all sewage from Little Rock Air Force Base goes to Jacksonville for treatment. The air base maintains its own sewer lines. The Jacksonville utility does not rely on contract labor but rather its own crews for daily, area-by-area testing and maintenance of the sewer lines within the city limits.

The ADEQ has set target dates over the next year and a half to bring the utility into full compliance. Failure to meet deadlines could cost the city as much a $500 per day in fines. This Tuesday, at a special meeting, the city council is expected to approve Norvell’s recommendation of Crist Engineering to do the study, so the work can begin.

“We would like citizens to know what we are doing and have all of this behind us in a year,” Norvell said. “Our goal is to be a responsible utility.”