The Environmental Protection Agency should not force the city of Fort Smith to raise sewer rates any higher, the Fort Smith city administrator said following a meeting with the agency in Dallas last week.

Fort Smith City Administrator Carl Geffken, Utility Department Director Jerry Walters, and City Attorney Jerry L. Canfield led the city of Fort Smith in an Aug. 10 meeting with the EPA Region 6 headquarters in Dallas for a meeting to discuss modifications the city requests be made to the consent decree.

Renegotiating a mandate that led to Fort Smith sewer bills increasing 167 percent has been a priority for city officials. Fort Smith’s Board of Directors entered into a federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in late 2014 without fighting it in court. The consent decree requires the city to make an estimated $480 million worth of sewer upgrades over the course of 12 years.

“We drew a red line,” Geffken said Friday. “We said the city of Fort Smith is not raising residents’ sewer rates any higher, and by their own guidelines, the EPA should not force us to.”

Also representing city residents were Paul Calamita, outside counsel, from Aqualaw; Robert Roddy from Burns-McDonnell, former Interim Utilities Director prior to Walters; and John J. Pruss, also from Burns-McDonnell.

The federal court order resulted from Fort Smith having permitted sewer overflows in violation of the Clean Water Act. It mandates utility infrastructure projects to improve the city’s capability to handle, treat and properly discharge wastewater. It also includes a schedule mandating the timeline for completing projects required through 2026.

Over the past 10 years, the city has invested almost $200 million in system improvements, including extensive wet weather storage facilities that have dramatically reduced capacity-related sewer overflows, Geffken noted.

“Despite the enormous unfunded cost of the consent decree, the city has maintained full compliance to date,” states a news release about the Dallas meeting requested by the Times Record. “Now, with three and a half years of experience and results, and a more precise and realistic estimate of the true costs, it’s clear there are more efficient methods, processes, and approaches as we strive to wrap up the consent decree requirements.”

The "better way" sought, the city states, is to have the consent decree modifications achieve the local, state, and federal goal of bringing Fort Smith into compliance with the Clean Water Act, "but in a more affordable manner that will avoid unreasonable burden on city ratepayers."

‘Common sense modifications’

Since the start of the EPA consent decree, the number of wet-weather overflows has decreased 94 percent, the city administrator states. The number of gallons of overflow have also decreased 96 percent as a result of sewer line improvements prior to, and since, entering into the consent decree.

Based upon the city’s “significant progress to date,” the city delegation pressed EPA for the following changes the city deems “common sense modifications":

• Cap sewer rates at no higher than 1.9 percent of median household income (MHI) for the remaining term of the decree. “This is a significant financial commitment that would generate another $100-$156 million between 2019 and 2026 for additional consent decree-mandated projects and activities,” the city states.

• End the consent decree in 2026, the original end date, then transfer any further regulatory oversight to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

• Delay hydraulic modeling, capacity assessment, and capacity remediation until the sewers have been cleaned. Currently all four actions are required to be undertaken concurrently.

• Stipulated penalties would only be assessed if there is an overflow due to the city’s negligence — not for overflows that are beyond the city’s control. Ratepayers’ funds should go to pay for fixes, not fines.

“Our residents have seen their water and sewer bills rise 167 percent since 2015,” Geffken pointed out. “That’s about 2 percent of median household income, which EPA’s own affordability guidelines say is the maximum that can be expected of ratepayers.”

Based on the city’s proposals, $200 to $256 million will be spent over the course of the consent decree, 2015 to 2026. The city has spent $100 million from 2015 to date and will spend $100 million to $156 million over the next eight years.

“This is the lion’s share of the work completed by the consent decree,” Geffken explains. “Whatever work remains will be more localized sewer improvements which can be more than adequately addressed with ADEQ.”

Geffken went on to note the city administration and legal team is “hopeful” the Trump Administration will recognize the “significant investments” the city has made to address the major issues that triggered the consent decree and that the administration will work with the city “to ensure that sewer rates remain affordable over the remaining term of the consent decree.”

“Finally, consistent with the president’s direction to implement cooperative federalism, we hope that EPA will agree to pass the modest remaining program oversight to ADEQ following our completion of consent decree requirements through 2026,” Geffken concluded.