Note: This story was last updated at 3:20 p.m. June 6.
Millions of gallons in sewer system overflows were reported to the state by the City of Oak Ridge between 2012 and 2017, and most of the largest overflows—500,000 gallons or more—were reported in the summer of 2013, according to a federal lawsuit that could be settled soon.
The lawsuit by Tennessee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization based in Alabama, was filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville in 2018. It alleged that the city had reported about 40 million gallons of sewer system overflows in a four-year period near local waters and that the city had violated the Clean Water Act. The city denied the claim. The lawsuit had sought to force the city to make repairs to keep pollutants out of creeks and rivers, and to charge the city $37,500 per violation per day. It also asked the city to pay reasonable attorney’s fees and expert fees. Riverkeeper said the discharges have affected how often its members use the Tennessee River and its tributaries for recreation. The discharges continued through at least early 2017, with more overflows reported later, according to the lawsuit and legal documents filed in the case.
Now, the lawsuit could be settled if the court approves and Oak Ridge makes at least $4 million in repairs by 2025 and pays more than $100,000 in attorneys’ fees. The settlement agreement was approved by City Council in May. A notice about the agreement was filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on Thursday.
The largest overflows, by volume, were reported about two years before the city completed millions of dollars worth of repairs to its aging sewer system and built three large wastewater holding tanks after an order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010. The EPA order had required the city to bring itself into compliance with its discharge permit. However, the overflows continued even after the city said it had satisfied the conditions of the EPA order, according to the lawsuit, although the overflows appeared to be at a lower volume than in the summer of 2013.
Legal arguments in the case have included debate over whether Tennessee Riverkeeper has standing—someone who had been injured by the sewer system overflows—and whether the discharges have continued.
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