The heavy excavation equipment perched over the gulch on East Main Street is an uncommon visual reminder that Morristown’s state-ordered, decade-long sewer-rehabilitation program hasn’t reached its destination.
At the bottom of the hole is a sewer line of insufficient size to convey the human waste, about 750 feet of pipe, according to Mike Howard, Morristown Utility Systems water operations manager.
When sewer flows reach their highest, the undersized pipes overflow, spewing raw sewage in the basin, which includes a Stubblefield Creek, an environmentally protected blue-line stream.
The fix is 750-foot run of 12-inch pipe from the Rusty Wallace auto dealership area southward to the “bottleneck,” according to Howard, who says the cost approximates $1 million.
An apartment block atop a bluff catches the eye, but the above-ground work is a tiny fraction of the sewer rehab that’s come at an incredible cost. The East Main sewer-line upgrade was just one of 48 projects in state-ordered work.
What began around 2006 as cursory sewer-line inspections in Central Morristown morphed into a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation order that will weigh heavy for decades.
The revised deadline to complete all TDEC-ordered sewer upgrades is August 2021, although utility officials says they expect to be finished by the end of 2019.
Jody Wigington, MUS general manager, says a detailed spending assessment shows the court-ordered sewer repairs will cost $128.2 million. Earlier evaluations that put the cost well below $100 million were incorrect, Wigington says.
MUS issued $71 million in bonds. The remaining debt was incurred before the Morristown City Council ceded operations of the 30-odd lift stations, and later the management of the wastewater collection and treatment components in 2015.
That’s about $4,400 for every person living inside the Morristown city limits. Retiring the massive debt required drastic sewer-rate increases.
For a conventional residential customer who uses 5,000 gallons of water per month, the sewer charge has risen from $15 in 2006 to $57.50 per month beginning Jan. 1, nearly a fourfold increase.
The sewer rates are essentially set in stone. If the Morristown Utility Commission doesn’t set rates sufficient to retire the debt, state government will do it for them.
Wigington says installing sewer lines costs much more, in part, because water lines are pressurized.
“Most sewer lines are dependent on a gravity slope to flow sewer to the treatment plant,” Wigington said. “Lines are deeper, must be supported on a consistent rock layer and require manholes for cleanout.
“Pump stations cost more and have a shorter life span due to the corrosive nature of sewer,” he added. “Given this, wastewater infrastructure’s expected life is only 40 years, when installed correctly,” the utility manager added.
It’s important to note that residential customers in Morristown use just 32 percent of the water that generates sewer income, according to statistics MUS supplied.
Commercial businesses use 21 percent of the water, but industries, which get rate breaks for high consumption, use the remaining 47 percent.
In 2016, one Morristown industry paid $2.21 million in sewer fees, or about 16 percent of the total collected, according to MUS.
The monthly charge for 1,000 gallons of water went from $3 to $11.50, beginning on Jan. 1. The existing sewer rate is sufficient to retire the $128.2 million debt. Interest on the debt will cost about $7 million per year, according to Wigington.
Wigington says the overall debt load, including debts not related to sewer, will remain essentially unchanged until 2029, when certain debts are paid. The next significant debt roll-off doesn’t occur until 2039, according to Wigington.
To help prevent a similar sewer-rate escalation in the future, MUS will spend about $2 million annually on maintenance and line replacement, a TDEC-recommended schedule.
Looking forward and back
Most sewer work included in $128.2 million involved repairing or replacing existing lines near the center of Morristown, projects that will not spur significant economic growth.
The notable exception is money carved out to upgrade the Lowland wastewater treatment plant and to connect the plant to industries in the East Tennessee Progress Center and commercial businesses at Exit 8 of Interstate 81.
This work will allow for additional industrial and commercial development at Exit 8, as well as potential significant development of Exit 12, which currently is home to a single convenience store.
The sewer line that serves Exit 8 is near capacity, and running a new line to Exit 12 can be largely accomplished with a gravity line. Also, further development at The Downs at Wallace Farms at Exit 8 could dramatically increase water demand, officials say.
For the first time in many years, management of Morristown’s sewer system appears to be headed toward financial sustainability and non-hostile relationships with environmental regulatory agencies, but that hasn’t always been the case.
The sewer-related legal dispute with Roe Junction and Witt community residents involving numerous overflows in South Hamblen County took years to resolve, and it’s impossible to say Morristown came out the winner.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer scorched the Morristown City Council in 2010 for misrepresenting the projected completion date and failing to disclose that a state comptroller’s officer-imposed borrowing moratorium that would prevent them from making the deadline.
“This failure is inexcusable,” Greer wrote. “Evidence shows that overflows have continued, endangering the environment and human health. Such a failure to inform this court cannot be ignored.”
The federal judge was also steamed by perceived sandbagging on turning over a crucial piece of evidence, a letter that suggested willful blindness toward the economically disadvantaged Roe Junction and Witt communities.
“This evidence is most troubling because … this particular document was not produced to the plaintiffs prior to trial,” Greer wrote. “There was also evidence that the city had placed a higher priority on other projects than the Witt sewer line.”
Another uncomfortable rub with state environmental officials came in 2011 when an avoidable power outage resulted in the dumping of 1.2 million gallons of raw sewage into Cherokee Lake.
State law requires wastewater-plants to have two power feeds to reduce the chances of a catastrophic spill.
The Morristown plant had two feeds, but they were on the same power pole and a storm that toppled the pole cut electrical service to the plant, which resulted in the sewage spill. At the time, the plant had no electrical generator for backup power.
-By Robert Moore, Tribune Staff Writer