‘Sewage pollution, unaccommodated growth, and infrastructure inadequacies negatively impact the Duck River’

After Tennessee Riverkeeper filed lawsuit for sewage pollution against the City of Manchester in July, The Manchester Times reached out to the organization for further information about the significance of the pollution in the area.

Tennessee Riverkeeper's legal team has provided The Times with a copy of the lawsuit against the city

Founder and Executive Director of Tennessee Riverkeeper David Whiteside has addressed sewage pollution to show how the situation in Manchester compares to other areas in Tennessee.

“The Duck River is loved by millions. It is rightfully considered one of the South’s greatest rivers because of its unprecedented aquatic biodiversity and majestic scenery,” Whiteside said.

“Manchester’s sewage pollution, unaccommodated growth, and infrastructure inadequacies negatively impact the Duck River and its nearby tributaries.”

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Manchester’s sewage pollution is worse than the pollution of most areas in Tennessee, according to Whiteside.

“Manchester has had more than 330 sewage related violations in five years which is more than most municipalities throughout Tennessee. 33,930,595 million gallons of untreated sewage illegally discharged is not a small amount of waste,” Whiteside said in an exclusive press release for The Times. “These problems did not begin recently, they have worsened over time due to neglect of sewage system maintenance and putting growth ahead of infrastructure to support it.”

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Millions of Americans become sick from waterborne illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with young children, the elderly, and immunocompromised citizens being the most vulnerable, said Whiteside.    

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Increases in the release of toxic industrial chemicals, the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” and emerging infectious organisms, such as coronavirus, that can all be transmitted through sewage, have made sewage problems more dangerous, said Whiteside.

“The Duck River is the water source for approximately 250,000 Tennesseans,” Whiteside said. “It is a significant tributary of the Tennessee River and one of the state’s most scenic rivers. The Duck River is also one of the most biologically diverse waterways in the world.”

Sewage pollution is generally caused when pipes are broken and leaking, or when systems are overloaded and treatment is sometimes bypassed.

The result is that untreated waste is frequently permitted to flow into waterbodies and communities. Population growth puts added pressure on wastewater collection and treatment systems. Urban sprawl creates more paved land and surfaces that cannot absorb water, which can aggravate hot spots in a leaky collection system, said Whiteside.

“There are many factors to consider in looking at how serious sewage discharges may be besides just the volume of release,” Whiteside said. “Riverkeeper looks at what river or creek the untreated sewage flows into and how many people use these waterbodies for recreation. The Duck River is renowned for its natural resources and used substantially for recreation. Manchester’s sewage spills in the Duck River watershed increases pollution concerns in Coffee County.”

Sewage spills affect waterways where swimmers, anglers, paddlers, and others are put in harm’s way, said Whiteside.   

“Untreated sewage is a threat to public health and communities because it can contain dangerous bacteria and pathogens, and it can cause the depletion of oxygen in the river and streams, harming fish and other aquatic wildlife,” Whiteside said.

Manchester’s sewage pollution is worse than the pollution of most areas in Tennessee.  

“The majority of the sewage treatment plants that Tennessee Riverkeeper has analyzed throughout the Volunteer State, do not have this many violations,” Whiteside said. “A few Tennessee cities with significant violations are: Nashville, Clarksville, Lawrenceburg, and Oak Ridge.”

Tullahoma also has sewage issues; however, they are not as serious as the problems in Manchester, according to Whiteside.  

“Tullahoma has had only two exceedances, three overflows, and three bypasses since April 30, 2019,” Whiteside said. “Some of these violations occurred when the town exceeded their permit limits for the amount of E. coli bacteria that they are allowed to discharge into the Duck River.”

Exceedance is an unpermitted discharge of wastewater from the treatment system through the permitted outfall, by exceeding the permitted discharge limit of a pollutant, according to Whiteside. A bypass is the intentional diversion of waste streams from any portion of a treatment facility, and an overflow is an unpermitted discharge of wastewater from the collection or treatment system other than through the permitted outfall.

Tennessee Riverkeeper recently analyzed other sewage treatment facilities surrounding Coffee County. 

The organization’s findings show that McMinnville, Shelbyville and Winchester have had sewage overflow and bypass problems.

“Members of Tennessee Riverkeeper recreate on or otherwise use and enjoy the Duck River and its tributaries,” Whiteside said. “They have a direct and beneficial interest in the continued protection, preservation, and enhancement of the environmental, aesthetic, and recreational values in the Tennessee River and its tributaries. The recreational, aesthetic, and environmental interests of Tennessee Riverkeeper’s members are adversely affected by the continued violation of state and federal environmental laws.”

City’s response

In response to the first story published by The Manchester Times in July about Tennessee Riverkeeper filing a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act (CWA) against the City of Manchester for violations of the CWA and Manchester’s pollution discharge permit, Manchester Mayor Lonnie Norman, addressed the issues in July.

The city’s sewer system has many older sections of lines which had no upgrades for years, said Norman. During the last 25 years, the city has worked with TDEC and outlined annual projects and plans to upgrade its system, according to Norman.

Since 1995, the city has worked on repair projects, spent more than $23,590,611 on 17 capital projects performed by private construction companies, and spent additional dollars on projects, such as line repairs, replacements, smoke testing and dye testing.

Manchester City currently has a $2.8 million rehabilitation project underway. Upon completion of this current project, the city will have completed a permit period with the state, and it will prepare another five-year plan of projects to further upgrade its sewer system. Of the $23.5 million cost, the city has acquired more than $6.5 million in state and federal grant funds and applied these funds to the cost of the rehabilitation program, according to Norman.

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“The City has never been complacent in reporting sewer discharges to the Duck River and it has taken a very active role in trying to protect the Duck River. Staff of the Manchester Water & Sewer Department are active members in the Duck River Agency which serves to protect the Duck River system and ensure its use for drinking water for the residents in Middle Tennessee,” Norman said. “While these sewer rehabilitation projects are costly and have a direct impact on the sewer rates for the residents of Manchester, the City has worked hard to reduce operating costs year after year in an effort to minimize rate increases in sewer bills. For over 25 years, the sewer rates the citizens pay have been held to a reasonable rate, and the City of Manchester will continue to maintain the balance between reasonable sewer rates and the costly but necessary capital rehabilitation projects.”

The Times has reached out to Norman, and his comments will be added when he provides additional information.