Fort Smith may get new DOJ consent order in early 2014

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A dispute over payment for land that erupted at a Dec. 3 Board of Directors meeting brought to light a continuing nuisance for the city of Fort Smith and according to one city official, it does not look like that nuisance will be going away anytime soon.

At issue Dec. 3 was an attempt by the city's utility department to acquire land through eminent domain in order to move forward with construction of the Mill Creek Pump Station project. The land owner, Steve Beam, said the $86,000 price offered by the city was too low given the fact that a bank had financed the land for $200,000. Beam eventually received a payment of more than $146,000 for the property.

At the time, Director of Utilities Steve Parke said it was vital for the Board of Directors to approve the project since the city would be meeting with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) the following week regarding a consent agreement associated with wastewater runoff problems that date back to the 1970s.

The city is prohibited by the Department of Justice from discussing any of the specifics of the meeting, but Deputy City Administrator Jeff Dingman reiterated that the problem was longstanding and would not quickly be resolved.

"The city has not been under a consent decree from the (Environmental Protection Agency) though the DOJ. I think it's been since (1989)," he said, adding that the city is under an administrative order, which he labeled "a preamble to a consent decree."

He said the reason the EPA and the DOJ involved themselves in the city's sewer system is due to a violation of the Clean Water Act.

"In the past, there have been areas of town where untreated water has gone into the streams and the river in violation of the clean water act. That's the whole deal. We've (had) untreated water going to streams and rivers in violation and we have to prevent those."

The overflows of untreated water have been corrected, according to Dingman, though he said the projects continue in an effort to satisfy DOJ requirements and to replace pipe he said it nearing a century in age.

"Now all of the overflows have been corrected, but we have a lot of areas in the pipe that we need to identify in order to secure our system."

Projects such as the Mill Creek Pump Station and the new tanks being installed at the intersection of Jenny Lind and Zero Street are intended to relieve stress on the system that includes miles of outdated infrastructure.

"They're intended to serve as collection basins and then slowly release water into the sewer system, get treated and then recycled, so to speak."

And while the city has made great strides from no wastewater treatment during the 1960s to a system that is constantly being updated today, Dingman said it will still take many years for the city to come out from under any sort of DOJ orders, including an expected consent decree to be put in place by the D)J.

"They've been working on the consent decree for four or five years to get it finalized," he said, adding that the city would comply with the contents of the agreement once it is issued. "We will comply with them. That's the deal. When we get a consent decree negotiated, it will be one we can comply with."

Even though some cities have had their utility and sewer departments taken over by the EPA, Dingman said Fort Smith residents should not expect that even though Parke told the Board that the city has been under some sort of order since the 1970s.

"Those things are for cities who refuse to do what they're supposed to do. We're not refusing. We're doing a lot of work knowing that it's coming. A lot of the work during the last 10 or 15 years is because we know we've got problems and we're correcting them."

And while the collection of utility projects to bring the city into compliance will be well over $100 million when all is said and done, Dingman said the city is not focused on the price tag.

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"Once we get everything done, it's going to be a lot. And the other thing that's part of this is not only…of course the main focus is correcting the problems we've got, but there's also a concentrated effort in having a more aggressive cleaning and maintenance program going forward."

As for when the DOJ may release details of the consent decree it has been negotiating with the city, Dingman said it would likely be in the first quarter of 2014 "before we hear something back from them."

"I know it's been at least five years (that the city and the DoJ have been in negotiations), but it's not a particularly fast process."

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Appears we have known this was coming for decades..

..and what we did was increase the water supply twice, build a civic auditorium, partially redo the downtown area, and after all that slap an extra charge on utilities to pay for this at the last moment. Correct me if I'm wrong on this.