An early August meeting is anticipated with city, state and federal authorities to discuss modification of Fort Smith's nearly half-billion-dollar consent decree handed down in 2014 by the Environmental Protection Administration and Department of Justice to comply with the Clean Water Ace and eliminate sewer overflows and discharges into the Arkansas River during heavy rains.
The potential face-to-face meeting follows a June 25 conference call between City Administrator Carl Geffken, Utilities Director Jerry Walters and representatives from the EPA, U.S. Department of Justice, the Arkansas Attorney General's office and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.
Failure to comply with the consent decree could result in fines. The Fort Smith Board of Directors discussed the consent decree modification at its June 22 workshop. Geffken noted in that meeting the city has spent about $320 million on fixes to the storm drainage system before and after the consent decree in 2014. The consent decree for Fort Smith requires the city to make an estimated $480 million worth of sewer upgrades over the course of 12 years.
Renegotiation of the mandate is called for, Geffken argues, because the city cannot afford it and more affluent areas of the nation have been asked to do far less with a longer deadline than Fort Smith. For example, an area of Pennsylvania was given 20 years to make $200 million in improvements, Geffken states. Sewer bills in Fort Smith have increased 167 percent since the consent decree went into effect.
The matter was not fought in court, Geffken added.
While federal agencies worked from 2006 to 2014 toward an official consent decree that would set a schedule for construction projects and require a program for ongoing care of the aging sewer system at the city’s cost, former Fort Smith City Administrator Ray Gosack told the Times Record in 2014 that Fort Smith had been plagued with sanitary sewer overflows for decades. Some apparently were even intentional, Gosack noted.
“We had 21 locations in this city where back in the late 1970s the city intentionally put in overflow points in the sewer system to let the sewage escape into the creek — a blatant violation of the Clean Water Act," Gosack said in 2014, noting the last of those were removed around 2012.