Pollution lawsuit - Cumberland River

The Cumberland River at Riverbluff Park.

A settlement has been reached in a federal lawsuit that claims the Town of Ashland City knowingly dumped illegal levels of pollution into the Cumberland River from 2013 to 2017.

The mediation, which was submitted as a public document March 22, is for a February 2018 federal lawsuit filed by the Tennessee Riverkeepers, a nonprofit organization that aims to protect the Cumberland River and the Tennessee River from pollution, said David Whiteside, director of the organization.

Ashland City will pay $10,000 to cover Tennessee River’s legal fees as part of the settlement.

The suit claims that the town has violated the 1972 Clean Water Act multiple times. There are seven counts in the lawsuit, including one that the town released illegal levels of pollutants into the Cumberland River, allowed sewage overflows into the water and failed to keep accurate reports on such events.

There are two tables included in the lawsuit, which are from reports submitted by the town to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. One table shows that there have been about 60 overflows from the town’s water treatment plant from 2013 to 2017.

Reported overflows range from 10 gallons to 10,000 gallons, according to the table. The overflows are likely a mixture of rainwater and sewage, Whiteside said.

The other table shows that from 2015 to 2017, the town discharged a greater amount of pollutants into the river than permitted by the state at least 30 times.

“The Town of Ashland City denies any and all of Riverkeeper’s claims in (Tennessee Riverkeeper’s) notice of intent to sue letter and complaint,” according to the consent decree.

The town claims that some information included in the lawsuit is incorrect, city attorney Jennifer Noe said. She said she did not wish to comment further about the settlement.

The settlement, which requires that the town fully comply with a list of orders, will become final after the U.S. Attorney General’s office is given a 45-day period to weigh in on the agreement, Whiteside said. The Justice Department received the settlement April 1, he said.

Changes to be made

Under the mediation, the town must repair or replace the “discharge flow measurement device,” which is a device that determines the amount of flow or gallons Ashland City sewage treatment plant are putting into the river, Whiteside said.

The town will also be required to provide a link to its website that will show sewage overflow and discharge reports “so the public can monitor them better,” Whiteside said.

In addition, the town will be required to pay the nonprofit’s litigations costs including investigative, expert and attorney fees amounting to $10,000, according to the agreement.

The town will also be required to notify Riverkeeper when it has completed the consent order.

The Ashland City Council approved a proposal to purchase Cheatham County land on Tennessee Waltz Parkway for a new wastewater treatment at an April 2 work session, Noe said. The proposal allows for an offer of $7,500 per acre up to 11 acres, she said.

Possible health effects

While there are no documented examples of people in the area whose health was affected by the pollution, the Tennessee Riverkeepers provided some potential health consequences.

“We know that the bacteria and pathogens related to untreated sewage is a negative impact to water quality and public health,” Whiteside said.

Health issues can arise in the summer if residents ingest contaminated river water while swimming, he said. This can cause gastro-intestinal problems and flu-like symptoms. The water can also cause infections in open cuts, which commonly occur during activities like fishing, he said.

Another concern is that house pets can cool off in the river and later bring the bacteria into owners’ homes.

One possible reason that there aren’t documented examples is because people may not report such health effects because they don’t realize they’re related to contaminated water, he said.

“This is one of the most commonly occurring water pollution problems in Tennessee,” Whiteside said. “We know that sewage is one of the biggest threats to water quality in the Cumberland and greater Nashville.”

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