Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

TOP STORY > >Sherwood moves to upgrade sewer

Leader staff writer

The Sherwood City Council on Tuesday set in motion a process to bring the city’s wastewater utility back into compliance with federal and state regulations – and keep it there or face more onerous fines.

The council unanimously ap-proved the sewer committee’s recommendation to hire Crist Engineering, a Little Rock-based firm, to help craft a plan for repairs, renovations, and routine maintenance to the city’s sewer lines and two sewage treatment plants.

The firm will be paid up to $133,453 for services that include creation of a wastewater system master plan for improvements that will ensure compliance and build for future needs. The city presently does not have such a plan.

What triggered the council’s action was a consent order from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, which goes into effect Jan. 9. For seven pages, it details violations at the city’s two sewer treatment facilities, some of which date back to 2005. Violations included repeated releases of treated wastewater into neighboring streams with fecal coliform bacteria and ammonia nitrogen levels far in excess of allowed limits. Both substances can do harm to the public and environment health.

When the violations continued, inspectors from the ADEQ and EPA paid a visit to the plants in November 2007 to see what the problems were. They were not happy with what they discovered in the way of improper operations and malfunctioning equipment. A few months later, the ADEQ fined the city of Sherwood $23,300 – since reduced to $15,500 – and then followed through with a consent order to ensure compliance within 18 months.

Oversight of the sewer treatment system is a responsibility of the city engineer, who at the time was Michael Clayton. He resigned 11 months ago. Ellen Norvell replaced him last June.

Since the summer, wastewater releases have met water quality standards. Some of the more complex, costly problems will await the engineer’s recommendations.

Aldermen expressed consternation at the news of the consent order and had plenty of questions for city engineer Norvell and two water enforcement administrators from the ADEQ, Anne Roberts and Cindy Garner. They wanted some perspective on the seriousness of the violations.

Roberts explained that while consent orders are not that uncommon for Arkansas municipalities, for the number of violations at the Sherwood facilities that went unaddressed for so long, “that is significant.

“With existence of repeat violations, a big flag goes up,” she went on. “The inspection definitely was the impetus for the order, but you were already on our radar screen because of the effluent violations.”

Garner added that the ADEQ has been pleased with Norvell’s and Mayor Virginia Hillman’s response to the consent order.

“You have got the right attitude. We have gotten cooperation from the city and feel like the city is on track to compliance. If we hadn’t gotten that feeling, we wouldn’t have reduced the fine.”

“None of us knew any of this existed,” Ward 4 Alderman Steve Fender told Roberts and Garner.

“Now that we are aware we have some problems we are not going to be ambivalent about fixing them,” Fender said.

Alluding to former engineer Clayton’s administration, Ward 3 Alderman Sheila Sulcer remarked, “We’re all surprised by this; why wasn’t it corrected at that point?”

Mayor Virginia Hillman replied, “To be honest with you, it wasn’t acknowledged.”

Ward 1 Alderman Lex “Butch” Davis said, “I’ve been quite blissfully ignorant and now the bottom has fallen out.” He and Ward 1 Alderman Charley Harmon called for regular council meeting updates from Norvell about progress to meet the consent order.

From Jan. 9, the city will have 30 days to submit a proposed schedule to ADEQ for all renovations to the sewer system. Norvell estimates it will take about eight months to complete a master plan. Representatives from the ADEQ reassured the council that the city would be given a reasonable amount of time to develop a plan and implement it.

“We want you to get the work done in a reasonable time, but we are lenient where we can be,” Garner said.

Norvell lauded the hard work of the seven-person wastewater crew, which is responsible for operation of the two treatment facilities as well as sewer line maintenance.

Yesterday, they responded to seven calls for “stoppages,” she said. She urged the council to think about increasing the staff.