On multiple occasions over the past couple of years, Bluff City's sewage system has overflowed, running through homeowners' properties and into Boone Lake. Multiple property owners have claimed their homes have been damaged to varying degrees.
Throughout the forum on Thursday, Boone Lake Association members said they regularly test the lake’s water, and other than at locations near the actual overflow in Bluff City, they hadn’t found anything to alarm the public regarding water quality or safety.
Bluff City’s problem in a nutshell is an aging sewer system that isn't designed or intended to carry storm water — but often does due to damaged sections. Fixing it is made more challenging by the relatively small size of Bluff City's population, which means fewer purses to share the expense.
Bluff City’s Board of Mayor and Alderman, the system’s engineering firm, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe’s office, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office, Mattern and Craig Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency all were invited to attend the 6 p.m. meeting at Johnson City's Memorial Park Community Center, according to organizers.
But most were no-shows. Alderman Sandra Madison was the only member of the Bluff City BMA to show up. And several candidates for the BMA — elections are May 16 — also showed up and were among the most vocal members of the audience.
Madison said she wanted Bluff City residents to know she is behind them all the way in efforts to get the city's sewage woes fixed as soon as possible.
Representatives of the USDA's Rural Development Office and Mattern and Craig's David Wilson also showed up and spent a couple of hours attempting to answer the public's questions.
Bluff City was fined $25,760 by the TDEC in September 2016 after the agency determined more than 15,000 gallons of raw sewage had spewed into Boone Lake and onto residential properties between Feb. 1 and Aug. 21.
Renée Victoria Hoyos, TCWN’s executive director, told forum attendees the amount the city has had to actually pay is far less — less than $4,000 — because the whole order spelled out the $25,760 figure would be paid only if Bluff City basically did nothing. If the city continues to progress toward meeting the state's required remediation of the situation, it can keep from paying out more.Through loans and a grant the USDA’s Rural Development Office has provided about $3.7 million in funding for the Bluff City repairs, according to comments during the forum. Wilson said only about $400,000 of that amount has been used to date, completing the first phase of the city’s efforts to replace much of its sewer system. That included replacement of two pump stations.
Wilson said residents should see major progress on remaining repairs over the next 18 months, noting plans continue to be developed to make sure it’s a thorough fix.
The USDA representatives said if Bluff City’s ultimate repair plan needs as much as $1 million more in funding, there would likely be ways to help secure that funding.