An ecological mess has been simmering for years in the Northwest Arkansas community of Bethel Heights. And wouldn't ya know, my old friends at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (cough) are again wading knee-deep in yet another E. coli calamity.
Reporter Laurinda Joenks wrote the other day that the town's wastewater treatment plant, originally permitted in 2003, has been out of compliance for the better part of five years, thereby threatening health, local waterways and livestock, as well as requiring exorbitant costs to correct. The resulting quagmire stifles its growth and potential.
Bethel Heights, population nearly 2,500, has a bona fide calamity of E. coli contamination created by exploding growth, inadequate resources and a state agency (Remember the Buffalo!) that seems confused and ineffective when it comes to effectively regulating and resolving this shore 'nuff stinker.
Without wading too deeply into the muck of specifics, it seems our environmental regulators for years allowed sewage to accumulate on city and private property adjoining the town's ailing treatment facility, even including pipeline E. coli leakages into a neighbor's pond near where three cattle died.
Joenks' in-depth news account said plant operators have been steadily releasing wastewater underground with too many contaminants while the Department of Environmental Quality relied on the city to self-report problems, although numerous state inspections noted the city failed to do so.
Despite being fined at least once, the town today faces an expensive solution with money it doesn't have and a moratorium on local development until the matter is resolved.
"They've got E. coli floating in the field," state Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, told the reporter, offering a lab report from neighbors who tested standing water. "Is that what's best for their citizens?"
The town's mayor isn't commenting on the mess, and the Department of Environmental Quality contends its handling of Bethel Heights' numerous violations has been standard. Now that much I can believe.
Joenks reported that Bethel Heights' treatment system was out of compliance for 32 months (May 2013 to December 2016), according to records from the agency, which granted 16 months' extension for a fix. Records also show the town remained out of compliance for five more months during that time because the agency didn't follow up on a June 1, 2014, deadline until Nov. 4 that year. The state considered Bethel Heights in compliance for most of 2017 and all of 2018, even though its own monthly reports to the agency showed it was violating its permit.
The goal of the agency is to get all systems in compliance, claimed Jeff LeMaster, policy adviser for its Office of Water Quality. "We want them to be serving the residents of their community in a responsible way. Sometimes it takes some time. Sometimes we have to think out of the box for a solution."
While pondering outside the septic tank box, the health-threatening contamination continues to surface and pool.
The city's wastewater treatment consists of a septic tank-pumped sewage collection system. Wastewater is collected from the sewage system and sent to one of two treatment facilities, Joenks reported. Large solids and wastes are removed, and the treated water then flows through pipes beneath the ground across several acres. The treated water is slowly dripped to release it into soil just below the surface. The final treatment happens naturally through aerobic and bacterial activity within the soil, as opposed to having it released directly into a lake, stream or river.
Documents as early as August 2013 describe sewage surfacing in a field where the drainage pipes were buried.
Similar problems continued until 2017, when city leaders self-reported the system was finally in compliance. The state closed its enforcement case against Bethel Heights on Jan. 27, 2017. However, in March, the plant was again found out of compliance. A month later, the state said the town had addressed concerns to its satisfaction.
Each wastewater treatment system the Department of Environmental Quality oversees is inspected every five years, unless the agency receives a complaint. State records show no inspection of Bethel Heights' system occurred between March 2017 and February this year. If a problem is corrected, the plant returns to the five-year rotation.
Because the Bethel Heights case closed in 2017, the city's next scheduled inspection is in 2022, even though records from the city to the state show at least 49 violations of treatment standards, Joenks reported. Which made Della Rosa wonder why the department cleared the city in 2017.
This nightmare has dragged on until the problem prompted a temporary moratorium on community development. On May 6, the state gave Bethel Heights another three months to come up with a solution. That's in three weeks.
Good luck, Bethel Heightsians! Based on past performances, I'd say there's a better chance of me drawing a royal flush at the Cherokee Casino.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 07/16/2019
Print Headline: Sewage woes