Over a decade ago the regional sewer system for Thompson’s Station began leaking, indicating major problems with the system that had shifted most of the community from septic tanks and which helped fuel the residential and commercial development that has produced dramatic growth in the past decade. Despite dire warnings regarding a potential disaster if the two cells that compose the Town’s Regional Wastewater Facility failed, including huge costs, devastating impact on property values, and the likelihood that millions of gallons of untreated sewer water could pour into the groundwater and into the water supply of the community and surrounding areas, the Town has not been successful in resolving the issue.
Limitations on the current wastewater system, and approvals for development in Thompson’s Station, have already produced at least one lawsuit. If a moratorium on development becomes necessary because sewer system fails, then residential developments already authorized for sewer taps may also initiate litigation.
The Thompson’s Station regional wastewater system uses a drip irrigation for sewage treatment, in which the waste is filtered, cleaned and dripped into the soil. This process requires a much larger area than traditional wastewater treatment plants. Each of the two Thompson’s Station cells hold large amounts of wastewater, with a full capacity of about 62 million gallons of sewage water.
A patchwork effort was initiated In August 2016 when First Response Environmental Group and Thompson’s Station signed a contract for First Response to drain and clean out cell #1 at the Wastewater Facility and dispose of the sludge and other debris at certified facilities approved by the Tennessee Department of Conservation (TDEC). The Town agreed to pay a “not to exceed” amount of $445,000 to First Response for the work.
About a year later, after the Town had paid $420,000 to First Response for removal of approximately 369 tons of sewer sludge from cell#1, it became clear that the cost to finish draining and cleaning out cell #1 and properly disposing of the remaining sludge would far exceed the original $445,000 contract amount.
In October 2017 the Board of Mayor and Alderman for Thompson’s Station were told that additional funds were needed to complete the work on cell#1 because the original contract “was based upon cell #1 containing approximately eight feet of water and an average sludge depth of 2-3 feet” but that the sludge had a “significantly different profile” than expected. The Board was provided assurances that First Response would fully complete the work in “approximately 90 days” with the additional funding that was being requested.
The Board approved additional funding and authorized Mayor Corey Napier to sign a new contract increasing payment to First Response for the job by $237,000, bringing the total cost to $682,000 which is about 53% higher than the original contract. That work was supposed to be completed by February, 2018. It is still not complete.
On August 14, 2018, Todd Moore, the attorney for the Town, told the Board that First Response Environmental Group was no longer working to drain and clean out cell #1. Moore also advised city officials that First Response and the Town have been engaged in a contract dispute since February 2018, when the work should have been completed. Todd indicated that the Town had already paid First Response about one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, or roughly half of the $237,000 added to the original contract, and that First Response was demanding payment for the remaining balance of their contract although the work has not been completed. At this point, cell #1 remains non-operational state despite payment of over half a million dollars to fix the system.
In response to the information provided by the town’s attorney at the August meeting, Alderman Ben Dilks asked how it was possible for the contract to not yet be completed and the costs dramatically increasing beyond the original estimates and revised estimates. Moore told the Board of Alderman that First Response claims “change orders were authorized” but he would not, or could not, say who had authorized them if they had in fact been approved. The town’s attorney said he would prepare a more complete report and present it at the September meeting.
At the September Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting held on September 11, 2018 no action was taken as there was a disagreement over the fact that the Request for Proposal (RFP) was focused on only a small area of cell#1 while the original contract with First Response was to clean out the whole cell, inspect the liner and repair the problems. Aldermen Ben Dilks and Graham Shepherd argued that after spending over $500,000 with First Response it didn’t make sense that the Town would only do a partial repair rather than pushing forward and cleaning out cell #1, inspecting the liner and repairing the entire cell. Alderman Dilks pointed out the potentially apocalyptic consequences of pursuing a band-aid approach rather than actually addressing the larger problems that are increasingly apparent: “Worst case scenario, we could have sewage leaking out everywhere; worst case scenario is we have porta-potties out in our streets because we don’t have a workable sewer system.”
Planning commissioner Mike Roberts, who is a candidate for Mayor in the November election, points out that: “The bottom line is that our sewer system has not been fixed, we have spent a lot of money for repair work that hasn’t been successfully completed, we continue to have approved residential development push us beyond capacity, and have a ticking time bomb of untreated sewage just waiting to explode. It appears that the current Town “leadership” wants to simply get past the November election and hope for the best – that’s NOT the leadership that our community needs!”
Earlier this year, the Town agreed to buy additional property to expand its sewer capacity but did not address the issues with the current system. Additionally, while the purchase of the property was approved, there has been no plan approved for the costs of construction and the sources of funding.
On Thursday, September 13 the Town hosted a work session for the Board, the engineering consultants and the sewer committee to discuss the wastewater treatment plan and the options available. The engineering consultants at Barge Design Solutions recommended continuing to use the two existing cells, with cell#1 being made operational, for the next ten years rather than immediately building a third cell. The Town would then rely upon a new technology system that would enable the Town to have sufficient capacity for the next several decades. The Board of Mayor and Alderman are expected to review a final recommendation for approval at their October meeting.