Editor’s note: The Oak Ridge City Council recently established an ad hoc subcommittee to focus on issues related to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrative order on inflow and infiltration of the city’s wastewater system. Councilman Chuck Hope, who is chairman of the subcommittee, provided the following report on its recent meeting with the EPA in Atlanta.
The subcommittee of City Council that was formed to address our EPA Administrative Order concerns, went to Atlanta, Ga., on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, to meet with staff from the Southeast Regional (Region 4) EPA office.
The meeting was attended by four EPA staff members: Denisse Diaz, clean water enforcement branch chief; Maurice Horsey, municipal and industrial enforcement section chief; Michele Whetherington, assistant regional counsel; and Dennis Sayre, our assigned contact in municipal and industrial enforcement.
Our group consisted of Council members Anne Garcia Garland, Charlie Hensley, David Mosby and I, along with former councilwoman Ellen Smith, City Manager Mark Watson, Public Works Director Gary Cinder, City Attorney Ken Krushenski, and Lamar Dunn, our engineering contractor.
I opened the presentation, followed by Anne, Ellen, Charlie, David, and then I came back to summarize. We had a fully engaged two-hour meeting; we gave our EPA power point presentation, and then opened up the discussion with numerous questions asked and answered on both sides.
Since this meeting was requested by City Council, we felt it was important to personally present this material to EPA. I want to thank my colleagues for a job well done.
Also, I want to thank the city staff for working on this program. A tremendous amount of data was gathered, analyzed, and arranged within this presentation, and we could not have done it without their help. I believe that the EPA staff was impressed and appreciative of the information we gave them, allowing for a much better understanding of our situation here in Oak Ridge.
After the Q&A session, both sides now have more information about what we need to pull together, so we on City Council can make good and informed decisions on which is the best course to take. As stated by the EPA staff, the current administrative order has certain restrictions and limitations that they cannot easily change. But they are willing to take the additional information from us they have asked for, and discuss different solutions to it.
We need to discuss with city staff what the total cost of this project means to the wastewater rates over the current timeframe, and any additional extended time that we may want to ask for from EPA. Depending on those answers, there are different directions this issue can go, but it can become very restrictive and quite possibly more expensive. After both sides discuss these issues within their respective groups, we could bring forth a “Formal Letter of Request” for the best option.
What I took away from this meeting is that EPA has a better understanding of our situation, is willing to listen to us, and wants to help us if possible. We did not make this trip to Atlanta with a formal request letter, so we can fully explore all of our options now before such a letter is submitted.
Here are a few points that some of my fellow committee members took away from this meeting:
- Councilman Charlie Hensley—The EPA stated the quality of our work (City of Oak Ridge) was impressive to date. I was also relieved to hear that EPA will “discuss what makes sense and a time frame”, and will discuss alternatives with us at a later date. In my opinion, we are in a good position with the EPA since they stated they understand our situation, and that we have made compelling statements justifying our position, and they will work with us to reach a successful end to this project.
- Councilwoman Anne Garcia Garland—We learned more clearly the constraints the EPA operates under, as well as the severity of our situation, since coming into the process two and half years ago. I agree completely that this was the right move for Council, to have some of our Council members converse in person with the EPA folks involved with our administrative order. They seemed both forthright and kind in their professionalism, and we are pointed in a more informed direction.
- Councilman David Mosby—It was good for us to meet face to face with EPA in order to find out what our options are. More importantly, we got a sense for the obstacles we would face if we changed course.
- Former Councilwoman Ellen Smith—I learned that EPA had used our relationship with our U.S. Department of Energy facilities to justify reducing any penalties that might have been levied against the City of Oak Ridge. We will need to submit a formal financial analysis to EPA for their further consideration. We learned that our current sewer rates look average when compared within the EPA Southeast Region, which requires further work on our part before we converse again.