Fort Smith Settles Clean Water Act Violations With $255 Million Plan

Jan 5, 2015

Fort Smith National Historic Site
Credit nps.gov / National Park Service

Arkansas’s second largest city, Fort Smith, will embark on 12-year, $255 million upgrade to its sewer and water treatment operations as part of a settlement regarding a decade of Clean Water Act violations. KUAR’s Jacob Kauffman talked to the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of the Municipal Enforcement Branch Loren Denton about where untreated waste ended up and the prospects of cleaner water.

KAUFFMAN: Could you describe the nature of these pollutants that are being discharged and some of the harms that are present in these violations of the clean water act?

DENTON: Fort Smith has had 2,000 plus discharges of untreated sewage over the last decade, primarily into the Arkansas River. This was about 120 million gallons we estimate that had flowed into the river untreated. Basically untreated sewage has got everything that gets flushed down the toilet, it can have hospital waste, it can have industrial waste in it. There can be a lot of stuff in untreated sewage that we don’t want to have in our waterways; certainly we wouldn’t want to have people in contact with it if it hadn’t been treated.

KAUFFMAN: Can you go in to some more detail about the types of places this waste was discharged in addition to the Arkansas River?

DENTON: There were numerous places throughout the city that they had discharges. Obviously, these often happen in low-lying areas. It’s not uncommon that these will happen in areas that have low income populations, so we’re concerned about that in particular. They were throughout the service area for Fort Smith. There probably were, there are likely some areas that we can say it happened repeatedly.

KAUFFMAN: Can you speak to the city’s cooperation with the EPA? Have they seemed recalcitrant in any way. Surely they knew about this problem beforehand.

DENTON: Well I think that’s a, it’s a tough question. We’re talking about a fix that’s going to cost quite a bit of money so that’s a tough thing for any city to look at and to think about. So, in terms of recalcitrance, I would say, sure. They’ve had some tough questions for us, we’ve had some tough questions for them. We do want to ensure that public health is protected, that the waterways are protected. It’s led us to where we’re at, where we basically have resolved this through a consent decree that will cost a certain some of money for the city and will require a certain amount of effort. I think that both sides did their best to ensure that the public was well protected but also that money was well spent.

KAUFFMAN: Can you explain a little bit about the scale of this project. It cost over $200 million. How big of a deal is this, how big of a portion of Fort Smith’s sewage infrastructure are we talking about?

DENTON: We basically are asking Fort Smith to look throughout their system. In particular we want them to focus on areas that have heightened threats for failure. We are asking Fort Smith to be a more proactive city in the sense that they are anticipating where they might have problems and addressing them so they’re not reacting to a problem that’s already happened. This is work that we’ve really been doing with a lot of cities throughout the country. We have settlements like this, we’re looking at infrastructure issues such as this in cities all throughout the country and you can find a lot of information on that. I don’t think it’s unusual what we’re asking Fort Smith to do but we do recognize that there is a cost and a burden to the citizens.

KAUFFMAN: What are some of the long lasting impacts, or are they long lasting, of the sewage that’s been discharged and what will be during the next 12 years?

DENTON: There are obviously some impacts to the Arkansas River in particular. The benefits will be that this will improve water quality into the Arkansas River but it will also result in less chance that an unsuspecting citizen might come into contact with untreated sewage. So that’s definitely a benefit. I think that we’re assuming, you know, it takes some amount of time because a lot of times these are infrastructures that are under city streets. It requires quite a bit of engineering and quite a bit of planning. We recognize that it can be disruptive and can take a lot of effort and planning. That’s partly why we give more time, to make sure that the city can properly plan and do what is necessary.