BETHEL HEIGHTS -- The city's wastewater treatment plant in Bethel Heights has been out of compliance for the better half of five years, and the state agency responsible for the plant's oversight agreed to much of the delay.
The city and state regulators have allowed sewage to pool on city land and neighbors' property. Plant operators also released wastewater underground containing too many contaminants. The state even relied on the city for years to self-report any problems, even though numerous state inspections noted the city's failure to report permit violations.
The city is violating its permit again, state regulators said in February. On May 6, it gave Bethel Heights 90 days to come up with a fix.
The violations threaten public health, nearby waterways and livestock. The situation likely means an expensive solution and a halt to development in the town.
"They've got E. coli floating in the field," said state Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, sharing a report from neighbors who tested the standing water. "Is that what's best for their citizens?"
Della Rosa represents residents of Bethel Heights in the state Legislature.
Mayor Cindy Black has repeatedly refused comment on the issue. The state said its handling of the Bethel Heights violations is standard.
The city's wastewater system was out of compliance for 32 months -- from May 2013 to December 2016, according to records of the Arkansas Department for Environmental Quality. The state granted 16 months of extensions for the city to fix its problems.
Records show the city stayed out of compliance for five more months during that time because the department didn't follow up on a June 1, 2014, deadline until Nov. 4 of that year.
The state considered Bethel Heights in compliance for most of 2017 and all of 2018, even though the city's monthly reports showed it was violating its permit.
The goal of the Environmental Quality Department is to get all systems in compliance, said Jeff LeMaster, policy adviser for the department's Office of Water Quality.
"We want them to be serving the residents of their community in a responsible way," he said. "Sometimes it takes some time. Sometimes we have to think out of the box for a solution."
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said the Department of Environmental Quality deals with these issues in every city in the state.
"The ADEQ certainly understands the seriousness of this issue," he said. "The whole idea is: 'Let's fix this.'"
The city's wastewater system consists of a septic tank-pumped sewage collection system -- also known as STEP, Nate Olsen, an Environmental Quality spokesman, said last month. Wastewater is collected from the sewage system and sent to one of two treatment facilities.
Large solids and wastes are removed, and the treated water runs through a series of pipes just below the ground on several acres. The treated water is slowly dripped to release it into soil just below the surface.
The final treatment of the wastewater depends on natural aerobic and bacterial activity of the soil, rather than being discharged or released directly into a lake, stream or river, Olsen said.
Documents from the Environmental Quality Department record sewage surfacing in a field where the treatment system is buried as early as August 2013.
State officials required the city to submit a plan to correct the problems each time an inspection found it out of compliance, which follows the regular procedures for violations, LeMaster said.
The department fined the city $6,400 in June 2015 for similar violations of the Arkansas Water and Air Pollution Control Act. Again, the city was asked to submit a correction plan. The city received an extension for completing the plan and also received a reduction in the fine.
"They have followed the enforcement action and corrective action plan to our satisfaction," LeMaster said.
The city's wastewater permit was renewed in 2015. The Arkansas Department of Health submitted the only objections, including concern about the city's history of inaccurate measuring, recording and reporting data required to be collected daily.
Yet, the records show the problems that began in 2013 occurred nearly continuously until 2017 when city leaders reported to the state that the system was finally in complete compliance. The state closed the enforcement case against Bethel Heights on Jan. 27, 2017, but in March, found the plant out of compliance again. A month later, the state said the city had addressed concerns to its satisfaction.
The state's records show no inspection of the Bethel Heights system from March 2017 to February this year. LeMaster said every wastewater treatment system the agency oversees receives an inspection every five years unless the agency receives a complaint about the system. If a problem is found and corrected, the treatment plant goes back on the five-year rotation.
With the Bethel Heights case closed in 2017, the city's next scheduled inspection was for 2022, despite records from the city to the department showing at least 49 violations of treatment standards of its wastewater release.
The inspection in February came at the behest of the treatment plant's neighbors.
Jason Steele reported more runoff, with high levels of contaminants, in January to Environmental Quality. After three cows died around a stock pond in 2016, the family has again and again taken samples and tested them using different laboratories. They all returned showing high levels of contaminants, said Joe Brooks, Jason's cousin.
"Until that first test, no one really knew how bad it was," Brooks said. A Jan. 28 test showed fecal coliform in the runoff on Steele land was 86 times stronger than the city's permit allows. Tests in March and April continued to show extremely high levels, reports show.
Steele said he noticed a pipe with water running into his pond -- a pipe the family didn't lay. And the family has owned the land since his grandfather bought it in 1951, he said.
He alleges Bethel Heights funnels wastewater the plant can't handle into his pond to get rid of it.
Steele fenced the pond to keep his cattle away. He also fenced his other pond this year after, he said, high levels of contaminants were found there, too. Now, he has water delivered for his cattle.
CLOSE TO HOME
Last week, two workers were in the field of the wastewater plant next to Lawrence Bowen's home. Two septic trucks left the plant in about an hour's time.
"At least they're doing something," said Bowen.
In March 2017, Bowen filed a report with the department complaining of flooding and contamination of his pond with untreated wastewater. The state office opened another case against the city and required a new correction plan, but Bowen said nothing changed.
Nicole Hardiman, executive director of the Illinois River Watershed Project, said the bacteria in raw sewage can cause sickness and disease to anyone or any animal in contact with it.
Wesley Stites, a member of the state's Pollution Control and Ecology Commission and head of the biochemistry department at the University of Arkansas, said the commission passes rules and hears appeals in its role as a judicial body. He declined to comment on Bethel Heights because the current enforcement case might appear before the panel as an appeal.
"At the most extreme," Stites said, "we don't want to drink our own sewage. Those are the reasons for the regulations."
Metro on 06/24/2019
Print Headline: Wastewater woes remain in spotlight in Bethel Heights