Fort Smith residents turned out Thursday for a public meeting to quiz city leaders about specific street and sidewalk projects, fluoride and the threat of federal litigation over Clean Water Act violations.
The Ward 4-specific meeting held at Woods Elementary School attracted about 50 residents. One resident asked for an update on an anticipated federal lawsuit against the city over Clean Water Act violations.
City Administrator Ray Gosack told the crowd that no federal lawsuit has yet been filed, and that the Arkansas attorney general is attempting to intervene “to try to convince the federal government to resume negotiations with Fort Smith.”
“We’re awaiting the results of that effort,” Gosack said. “As most of you know, for many decades, Fort Smith has had problems with its wastewater system when we get heavy rainfall. Fort Smith was in violation of the federal Clean Water Act for those discharges of the untreated sewage.”
Gosack told the crowd that Fort Smith had been under an administrative order from the Environmental Protection Agency since the late 1980s to begin making corrections to the wastewater system. “About nine years ago, the EPA was not satisfied with the progress Fort Smith was making, so they turned Fort Smith over to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement action,” Gosack said.
The enforcement action, he added, will be a consent decree, “which is much more serious than an administrative order.”
“A consent decree is basically a federal court order that identifies improvements Fort Smith will make, when they’ll make them by and the fines that Fort Smith will pay if it does not comply with that schedule,” Gosack said.
In late September, negotiations toward the consent decree ended abruptly; the city expected a federal lawsuit to follow. Earlier this month, the Fort Smith Board of Directors adopted a resolution that reaffirms the city’s willingness to work with the federal agencies and to continue with planned sewer-related improvements.
“We’ve made a lot of progress in addressing those problems, particularly in the last eight or nine years,” Gosack said. “We’ve eliminated or greatly reduced 80 percent of the chronic overflows we have in Fort Smith during periods of heavier rainfall.”
Residents like Dave Madzar were curious why the problem has persisted for so long. Gosack said that in the 1970s, the city’s solution was “just letting that sewage come out of the system.”
“They knew they had problems in the 1970s because they punched holes in the manhole covers to let the water get out,” Gosack said. “That was a clear violation of the Clean Water Act, and the federal regulators did not like that it had happened.”
Ward 4 resident Pat Lynch asked directors why they voted to fluoridate the city’s drinking water, a move voters turned down in the 1970s and in 1992. “We voted it down twice here,” Lynch said.
At-Large Director Kevin Settle said the move was mandated by the state of Arkansas.
“The state passed it, not the board, so we have to follow state law,” Settle said. “We actually had an attorney general’s opinion that said state law overrode what the citizens voted for.”
In 2011, state legislators passed a law requiring water systems serving 5,000 or more customers to fluoridate their public water when funding became available. In August, the Fort Smith Board of Directors agreed to accept a $1.8 million grant from the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation to cover startup costs associated with adding fluoride to the water system.
“They finally came through with the money earlier this year,” Settle said. “So that is in place to fluoridate the water system. There is nothing we can do to get around it unless the state law changes.”
Residents also heard from various department heads about Ward 4-related projects like an aquatics center, sidewalks and sewer work. Fort Smith ward meetings are held quarterly.
*Original article online at http://www.swtimes.com/article/20141024/NEWS/310249852