MARTIN — The long troubled Martin wastewater treatment plant has been on track to finally be rectified, but a recent push by the Division of Water may scrap those efforts.
During Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Martin City Council, council members received an update on the city’s wastewater treatment project, which is expected to break ground Monday. Summit Engineering officials have estimated that the project, which plans to overhaul several aspects of the city’s sewer plant, including replacing the pumps in lift stations, will be completed by November.
Administrators have been working with the Division of Water to correct the problems which have plagued the city for years, and led to numerous violations. But just as the city seems on the verge of fixing the wastewater treatment issues, the Division of Water is pursuing legal action which could jeopardize the cities hold on its water and sewer services.
City Attorney Clyde Johnson said Tuesday that on the same day that construction is set to begin, Martin officials are scheduled to appear in Franklin Circuit Court to hear a motion holding the city in contempt for a temporary injunction which was filed in March.
According to the motion, Martin remains in violation of the Divisions of Water’s March injunction, continuing to discharge raw sewage via unpermitted overflows and bypasses from the wastewater treatment plant, and failing to report all spills and bypass discharges to the cabinet.
Johnson says the motion seems peculiar as the city is just now on the cusp of solving the problem that has plagued it for so long. Johnson said delays in the FEMA grant which is is financing the work and securing a contractor to perform the work have drawn the matter out.
According to Johnson, despite the sewer treatment plant being an ongoing problem for nearly a decade, the state filed their lawsuit against the city right after they had secured a contractor to perform the work.
“Right then, the state chooses to file suit over continued violations, which are true,” Johnson said. “I mean, we don’t have a defense to it. It’s been like that for 10 years. But not only have we been trying to fix it, but right now we’re on the cusp of fixing it.”
Johnson said city officials met with Division of Water in April to try to determine what they needed to do, and were told to submit a corrective action plan for how they were going to fix the problem with actual timelines and better reporting. Since that meeting, Johnson says, Summit Engineering has submitted a corrective action plan with the current project, as well as other things they are working on, and a timeline of when milestones would be completed.
“To my knowledge, no one has contacted me and said there has been any problems since we met with them the first week of April, since that corrective action plan was sent in,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the city did not contest the Division of Water’s temporary injunction.
“We didn’t contest,” Johnson said. “Basically, it said we need to quit polluting the waterways, and we do. I mean, what are we going to say? ‘No, we ought to be able to?’ What we need is for them to understand that we’re trying to fix this, and to let us fix this in the time that they at least passively say would be OK.”
According to Johnson, the Division of Water has asked for a $10,000 fine as part of the contempt motion.
“If we weren’t actually doing this, I wouldn’t have a problem,” Johnson said. “I’d say ‘Yeah, that’s probably an appropriate course.’”
According to Johnson, while the motion doesn’t seek to put the city’s sewer treatment into receivership, a $10,000 fine and being required to have no further violations whatsoever would probably force the city into receivership. Johnson says the project the city is currently undertaking will solve its problem, but won’t prevent further violations until construction is complete.
Jeff Cummins, with the Division of Enforcement, which has spurred the legal action on the Division of Water’s behalf, says the action is not meant to be punish Martin for its efforts at a long-term solution, but rather their lack of action in the interim.
“The issue is not to be punitive,” Cummins said. “The issue is, we’ve seen continued unpermitted discharges since the March injunction.” Cummins adds that the city has continued improper maintenance and operation of the facilities.
“There are interim measures that can be taken while they are working on their long-term solutions, such as bringing in private outside parties to help manage and cleanup the sites.”
Cummins says the Division of Water has not seen any evidence that Martin has attempted to control the problems while they work toward their long-term goals.
“It’s a long time until November,” Cummins said. “We’re dealing with a longtime problem that has not had a solution to date. In the meantime, what is not acceptable is the continued, unpermitted discharge of untreated wastewater.”
Cummins says the untreated discharge presents a serious health concern to citizens and the environment, and that it is the short-term goals of trying to curb that process, which the Division of Water is asking the court to compel.
The motion does state that there are other public or private entities in the vicinity of the city “reasonably able to abate the degradation and public health threat if the city does not have the equipment or staff necessary to perform the work.”
Councilman James Reynolds believes that a move into receivership for the city could be disastrous. Reynolds says private water and sewer companies who are vying to take control of Martin’s sewer system could devastate an already struggling community, as a group unbound by city oversight could drive water and sewer rates beyond the means of local residents and businesses.
Martin officials will appear in court to argue against the motion in Franklin Circuit Court on Monday, June 3.