URGENT: Help Stop Proposed bill that would EXEMPT Sewage Leach Fields from state regulation!

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Email Your State Legislator NOW- by Monday June 8, at 4pm to oppose HB2206/SB2224 and any “carve-out” from regulatory oversight for sewer 

HC CEO, Dorie Bolze explains in Associated Press story: “The game is these private businesses want to not be regulated and make their money up front and then pass the problem on to the taxpayers.”

A brief personalized email is best!   Click here to send your message without having to look up your legislator’s contact information.   

Senators:

Senator Jack Johnson — (615) 741-2495, sen.jack.johnson@capitol.tn.gov   Thank his office of the Senate Majority Leader for standing firm that this bill will not go to vote on the Senate Floor because “Senate Leadership has chosen to take up only those bills that are Covid-19, Time Sensitive, or Budget related bills.”

Senator Steve Sutherland –(615) 741-3851,  (SB2224 bill sponsor) sen.steve.southerland@capitol.tn.gov

Representatives:

Glen Casada — (615) 741-4389, rep.glen.casada@capitol.tn.gov

Brandon Ogles — (615) 741-6808, rep.brandon.ogles@capitol.tn.gov

Sam Whitson —  (615) 741-1864, rep.sam.whitson@capitol.tn.gov

Jason Zachary — (615) 741-2264, (HB2206 bill sponsor) rep.jason.zachary@capitol.tn.gov

Click here to find your legislator if your do not live in Williamson county.

See both Associated Press stories:  June 2, 2020 and March 14, 2020.

SB2224-HB2206 (click here to read house amendment) proposes to exempt from permitting and TDEC approval the design the “construction, installation or modification of a land application” for alternative sewer discharge systems!   The Associated Press recently highlighted the severity of the risk to consumers and taxpayers not to mention the environment and public health from this bill.   You can read the AP story here.   

The Clean Water Professionals of KY-TN association represents 100s of utilities, industries, academia, consulting firms and engineers in TN.  Their letter, June 1 explains how this bill will “dial back proper regulatory oversight of these systems during the design and construction phase.”   This bill will remove that and only maintains TDEC’s ability to inspect operation once built.  But a  “world class operator will  NOT be able to property maintain and operate an improperly constructed sewer disposal system.”  

As disturbing as the proposed legislation is, equally concerning is the process by which it has been moved through the Tennessee General Assembly.  Proponents of this bill have used loopholes in procedures to ram through special interest legislation that makes neighbors and the public bear costs that system operators should assume. 

Using a technique called a “caption bill,”  legislators changed, at the last minute, this bill (SB2224/HB2206), which was introduced supposedly to shorten the time in which TDEC had to publish actions on its website,  into a bill to eliminate TDEC’s ability to review the design and construction of “alternative sewer systems”
(community-wide septic systems).  A major issue is not having enough land for the tank lines to distribute effluent.  If not enough land is set aside, partially treated effluent can pond on the land and pollute both land and water.  And, these systems have been a principal component of the hopscotch growth patterns that have frustrated Williamson County’s ability to manage growth over the last decade. 

This is SO VERY SERIOUS.   Leach fields are a critical part of alternative sewer systems that do not discharge into waterways, but it is vital that these are properly designed, installed, maintained and regularly inspected by the state to prevent the public from being exposed to partially or untreated sewer effluent.  Many of these systems, such as those in Williamson and Rutherford Counties, are built for and close to residential subdivisions.   

Land application/leach fields for these systems must be specifically designed for each situation to consider soils, weather/season, slopes, usage and so forth.  There is no standard system, and they do not work everywhere.    It is illogical to remove the critical role of our state environmental protection department from ensuring that sewer systems are protecting the public’s health, much less being financed and managed to protect homeowners financially.

These sewer systems, like all sewer systems, need to have regulatory oversight in order to protect public health and the environment.   Protecting citizen’s health from poor sanitation was one of the core reasons environmental agencies were created. 

There are subdivisions in Williamson County (and elsewhere) where the drip fields for the disinfected treated sewage effluent are adjacent to homes.  Treated sewage effluent from these systems is NOWHERE near the high level of treatment for a sewer plant that discharges into a river/stream.   It is essential that drip and spray fields for these alternative sewer systems be carefully managed as well as designed to avoid pushing too much fluid into local clay soils.   Again, these fields ARE PART of the SEWER system. 

Harpeth Conservancy has been involved with these alternative sewer systems for almost 20 years.  We worked closely with Thompson’s Station during the challenging initial phases of the town’s sewer system and with the state, national experts, and University of Tennessee experts that have focused on how to ensure that the design of these land application systems is effective.   We know how complex it is to do it right.

Our colleagues at the Southern Environmental Law Center compiled a map (below) of the locations of these systems (nearly 40 in Williamson County, which has a very high concentration in TN along with Sevier and Rutherford Counties).  It is very important that this bill not undermine the additional requirements that
Williamson County has adopted over the years to manage developments using these land application/leach field systems.   Williamson County’s requirements likely are helping to prevent some of the issues occurring with these systems in other areas of Tennessee.   (Williamson County leadership and citizens are so very familiar with the problems with private sewer systems as sewer rates are some of the highest in the state, and it is very hard for the state to ensure that capital improvements and maintenance are funded.)

Examples of serious issues from enforcement situations:  This is a challenge state-wide and poses serious enforcement issues wherever problems arise.  For example, excerpts from two enforcement orders in Robertson and Sevier Counties illustrate the gravity of the situation and why clear TDEC oversight on drip irrigation/leach fields is so important:

  1. Robertson County- issued 3/5/2020.   The “drip dispersal area was never constructed,” (Section XIII of the order).  The agency documented that in this Robertson County case, the operator didn’t build what it said it would build. Citizens in that area of Robertson County have been at increased health risk for years.   (Order WPC20-0012)
  2. Sevier County- issued 12/17/2018.    In that Sevier County case, TDEC responded to complaints from the local homeowner’s association and found that the operator had not built what it said it would build. Nor had they operated the system to protect waters. Section XXI of the order says TDEC staff “observed exposed and damaged disposal lines on the surface of the disposal field slope and effluent freely flowing down the slopes and into conveyance ditches to the creek.” And in Section XXVIII, the order says, “By discharging untreated or partially treated wastewater to an unnamed tributary of Seaton Branch, resulting in elevated E. coli concentrations, the Respondent has caused a condition of pollution.”  

While many of these systems are well-run, there seem to be problem operators.  There appears to be at least 21 enforcement orders related to these land application/leach field sewer systems, many related to the private company  Adenus/TN Wastewater systems.   SELC compiled a list from a survey through the TDEC permit dataviewer.  The map below shows the concentration of these systems, many of which are owned by Tennessee Wastewater Systems/Adenus, in Williamson County (close to 40), Sevier County and Rutherford County (close to 80).    

The most appropriate public policy approach to the oversight of the leach fields used by these sewer systems is to for TDEC to apply the updated rules the agency proposed in 2019.  It is illogical and irresponsible to “carve out” an exemption from TDEC regulatory oversight of sewer plants for a critical component of these types of systems as this bill proposes.   

There is NO NEED to rush through a special interest bill to help a problem operator that forces the public and neighbors to bear costs the operator should be paying.  SB2224/HB2206 does this by exempting a critical component of sewer systems from vital regulatory and design review, a review that is meant to protect public health, consumers, citizens, and taxpayers. 

With the COVID-19 epidemic requiring physical distancing and other important measures by everyone to minimize the spread, and with the TN Legislature highly limited access by the public, we strongly urge you to reach out to the bill sponsors and your local legislators and ask them to oppose this bill.   If necessary, a study committee could be set up to discuss land application/leach field type sewer systems after the state and the country make it through the pandemic.