This piece appeared in the September 21 Knoxville News Sentinel
In the 1970s, legislators passed federal and state water pollution control statutes to protect Tennessee waters. Unfortunately, some water-related health and safety problems remain in Tennessee communities. But a lawsuit provides a forum where citizens can seek relief. A lawsuit can be resolved in one of several ways—one of which being a consent decree.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines a consent decree as a judicial decision that all parties agree to. Parties enter these agreements at their own free will. In the context of suits brought under water quality protection laws, consent decrees hold governments and industry responsible for fixing the health hazards caused by years of polluting the nation’s water, air and soils. These decrees also allow parties to resolve disputes without additional litigation costs.
In his most recent Washington Report, Congressman John J. Duncan says that federal consent decrees are causing costly problems for states and communities across the nation. The Congressman takes a shortsighted view. The Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN) has first-hand experience with consent decrees and understands how they can be a mechanism for improving conditions for Tennessee communities.
Over the years, consent decrees to which TCWN has been a party to have helped prevent sewer overflows into the Tennessee River at Knoxville, reduced a toxic chemical called RDX from entering the Holston River at Kingsport, and have helped reduce pollution into the Tellico Reservoir from Madisonville’s treatment facility on Bat Creek.
Consent decrees especially benefit poor and lower-income residents. Many older sewer collection pipes are in low to moderate income communities. This means more economically disadvantaged communities disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution problems from old infrastructure.
Congressman Duncan took particular issue with the the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) consent decree. This particular decree addressed a serious problem in the city. About 12 years ago, raw sewage was bubbling to the surface throughout Knoxville—in city parks, neighborhood yards, and streets. The raw sewage was coming from the KUB sewer collection system that had pipes in some areas that were installed more than a century ago. This exposed, raw sewage presented a health hazard to Knoxville residents.
After negotiations, KUB agreed to a consent decree that would address this problem in a 10-year timeframe. KUB saw the importance of addressing this health hazard and developed the “PACE” program to stop this pollution. The remedy did require millions of dollars to implement, but doing nothing would have left a dirty legacy to future generations. That ill legacy would have been a more expensive problem to fix later. After implementing the consent decree, sewage overflows in Knoxville are greatly reduced. The city’s creeks and streams, as well as the Tennessee River, are cleaner too.
If our state and federal legislatures act to correct poor infrastructure through legislation, some problems consent decrees address would be avoided. TCWN would support such legislative action to protect water quality and public safety. Until comprehensive solutions are offered, litigation and, thus consent decrees, are a necessary tool in the tool box to help clean up water for present and future generations.