State Issues Fewer Fines To Polluters
by Ben Hall
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The number of fines issued by state regulators for polluting Tennessee's rivers and streams has fallen dramatically in the last five years.
Some citizen groups are now taking matters into their own hands and suing polluters themselves.
They are using a provision in the federal Clean Water Act that allows citizens to sue if they feel regulators are not enforcing the law.
The Harpeth River Watershed Association is one of the latest groups to threaten a lawsuit using the Clean Water Act.
It claims three sewage treatment plants have repeatedly violated the pollution limits that are part of their own permits -- endangering the future of the popular Harpeth River.
"The folks who live here smelled for several months, a sewage smell," said Dorie Bolze as she pointed to drainage pipe in the back yard of a Franklin neighborhood.
The pipe leads to Cartwright Creek which goes directly into the Harpeth.
Pictures from last May show what appears to be toilet paper and raw sewage filling the ditch, apparently from a nearby sewage line.
"It's extremely disturbing because kids are playing right there," Bolze said, pointing to the creek. "That's where everybody likes to play in the neighborhood."
Bolze is executive director of the Harpeth River Watershed Association.
Her organization filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue three sewage treatment plants near the Harpeth last month.
The small Cartwright Creek Sewage plant oversees the sewer line in the neighborhood where she is standing.
The homeowner reported the problem to the state, but the state has not issued a fine or even a notice of violation.
The city of Franklin sewage treatment plant and the Berry Chapel Utility sewage treatment plant have also repeatedly allowed raw sewage to overflow into the Harpeth -- violating their permits, but the state has not cited or fined either in the last five years.
Renee Hoyos with the Tennessee Clean Water Network, told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that her group and others have resorted to suing the polluters directly using the Clean Water Act -- because the state is not citing them.
"At this point in the last two years we're seeing very little enforcement from TDEC, and it's disturbing," Hoyos said.
"If the state doesn't step in and say, 'we have these laws and we are going to enforce them uniformly,' bad business practices get repeated," Hoyos continued.
In 2008, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation issued 204 water violations.
In 2012, it issued just 53, according to a recent report from the Tennessee Clean Water Network.
"We're talking about companies that violate thousands of times in the life of their permit. Thousand of times and the state has been silent," Hoyos said.
The Harpeth River Watershed Association claims that has happened on the Harpeth.
It has threatened to sue the Cartwright Creek Treatment Plant LLC, Berry Chapel utility and sewage treatment plant and the city of Franklin sewage treatment plant -- claiming thousands of violations among them.
Franklin's city administrator disputes the number of violations.
"That's not a full picture, and it's a gross overstatement," Eric Stuckey said.
"We're not perfect, nobody is. But we have a track record of taking responsible action fixing it," Stuckey continued.
In Franklin's initial response to the threatened lawsuit, it proudly pointed out the sewage plant has not been cited or fined by the state in at least five years.
"They're the experts," Stuckey said. "Their judgement has never risen to the level of issuing violations or issuing a fine or anything close to that severity on the city of Franklin."
But Hoyos, who is not part of the Harpeth River case, said it does not mean that much that if state has not cited a company for polluting.
"It doesn't mean that you're not polluting. It doesn't mean that you're not violating. I just means they have not enforced against you for whatever reason," Hoyos said.
She expects more lawsuits like involving the Clean Water Act in Tennessee. She said, if the state will not go after polluters, citizens will.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said it could not discuss the Harpeth River Case because of potential litigation.
A spokesperson said the state reviews all lawsuits filed under the Clean Water Act and has issued fines to polluters in certain cases.
The department claimed the economy was more active in 2008 than it is today, and that is why there are fewer enforcement actions now.
But environmental group blame dwindling state funding and a lack of state investigators for the decline in enforcement.