Clarksville Lawsuit

An aerial photo shows an overview of Clarksville's modern wastewater treatment plant, which was expanded and improved after it sustained damage in the 2010 flood. SUBMITTED

Tennessee Riverkeeper filed a multi-million-dollar federal lawsuit against the city of Clarksville for violations of the Clean Water Act with its alleged illegal discharge of pollutants from the city’s sewage treatment plant into the Cumberland River. 

The suit, filed Jan. 24 in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee, seeks millions in its actions, claiming Clarksville is violating provisions of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit with its failure to operate its collection system to avoid overflows. 

In November, the environmental group notified the city of its intent to take legal action for its alleged dumping of more than 82 million gallons of sewage with overflows that happened in the past six years. 

A suit filed in January reduced the number to 24 million gallons of pollutants in a five-year span. 

The Tennessee Riverkeeper’s lawsuit also charges violations of the wastewater plant’s permit and the Clean Water Act due to failure to impose a moratorium on new sewer connections upstream of any location that has experienced chronic overflows.

The environmental group said in a release the city’s operational failures and discharges demonstrate a continuing pattern of pollution, which degrades and threatens waters in violation of the Clean Water Act and state law.

“Tennessee Riverkeeper intends to prosecute these and similar or related violations in the appropriate judicial forum, including all violations which occur or continue after service of this notice and all violations revealed in the course of the litigation discovery process,” the release said. 

In addition to petitioning the court to have Clarksville remedy its alleged illegal discharges of raw sewage, the suit requests the court to assess a $37,500 civil penalty against the city of Clarksville for each violation and also for each day of continuing violation of the CWA for which the city is found liable. 

The award would be in addition to all legal fees. 

Clarksville’s response 

Clarksville officials issued a response Jan. 29 to the Tennessee Riverkeeper’s lawsuit that said the city invested millions in the ongoing improvements to sewage treatment. 

“The city of Clarksville is aggressively improving its entire wastewater collection and treatment system and has spent more than $130 million since 2010 on construction of a new sewage treatment plant and other upgrades,” the release said.

Clarksville Mayor Joe Pitts said the lawsuit lacked context. 

“The city is committed to clean water and strives to comply with all state and federal wastewater regulations,” Pitts said in the release. “And while the city does not admit to any unauthorized discharges, citizens should understand the context of what this lawsuit claims. Even if 24 million gallons of wastewater reached the river over five years, Clarksville Gas & Water would have managed to capture 99.899% of the total wastewater created in this timeframe. That would be a really small drop in a great big bucket.”

In November, when Riverkeeper alerted the city to its forthcoming legal action, alleging the city had discharged 82 million gallons during that time period. The city’s counsel argued nearly 50 million gallons of wastewater was released in a single catastrophic pipe break in late 2016 and showed the issue was resolved two years ago and is now moot. 

“Additionally, counsel showed that some 18% of the illegal discharges alleged in the Riverkeeper notice of intent were actually allowed under the city’s current permit administered by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation,” the release said. “Apparently, based on the city-presented evidence, Riverkeeper dramatically reduced the amount of the illegal discharges alleged in the lawsuit from 82 million to 24 million gallons of wastewater.”

City requests no litigation from Riverkeeper

City attorney William L. Penney with Burr-Forman sent a letter to Tennessee Riverkeeper on Jan. 13 in response to the group’s notice of intent to sue. 

The letter said the city is addressing issues pertaining to sanitary sewer overflows through a 2012 consent order issued by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. 

“The deliverables developed by the city pursuant to the Consent Order address all of the [sanitary sewer overflows] identified in your notice of intent to sue as chronic overflows,” the letter said. “In fact, those improvements are identified and funded for a total of some $22.7 million. The city has budgeted an additional $4.3 million for sewer rehabilitation to reduce infiltration-inflow and provide wet weather capacity relief.”

The letter claimed the city’s combined sewer overflows are permitted under the current permit, and Clarksville has budgeted $7.5 million to improve performance of the CSO area pursuant to its long-term control plan. 

“Completed capital improvement projects addressing sewer capacity and reliability issues total at least $54.2 million in the past 15 years. The city has aggressively worked to improve its entire wastewater system infrastructure since the 2010 flood caused massive damage to the system, all in accordance with state approved plans and milestones. Flood recovery and rebuilding cost the city some $132.7 million.”

In the letter, sent prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the counsel urged Tennessee Riverkeeper to avoid litigation.

“The city strongly believes that litigation under these circumstances will hamper rather than help the ongoing efforts in that regard,” the letter said.

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