Contractor hauling Chattanooga’s biosolid waste to Polk and other counties files federal lawsuit

Staff Photo / Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant is shown in this photo from May 2011.

A Maryland company hired to dispose of treated sewage from Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Plant is suing, saying the company's efforts have been micromanaged by city officials.

The lawsuit by Synagro South in U.S. District Court seeks at least $75,000, plus interest and court costs.

According to the lawsuit, the company was supposed to be responsible for identifying and using sites, such as farms and fields, to spread treated sewage as a fertilizer, but the city prevented the company from using certain locations.

The lawsuit also claims the city imposed rules about the disposal that were not in the contract — such as requiring same-day spreading of waste hauled to disposal sites. And the lawsuit claims the company was entitled to a fuel surcharge that was not paid.


"The contract does not give the city the unilateral right to approve or reject biosolid loads transported to certain sites on a load-by-load basis, to impose special conditions on loads to certain sites — such as a requirement that the load be spread on the same day — or the right to ban loads from whole counties or sites (for political reasons or otherwise)," the lawsuit claims. "The city's conduct materially obstructs Synagro's performance and denies Synagro any benefit of the bargain."

The company names a former mining site in Polk County, Tennessee, as a particular location that was kept off limits, plus some locations in other counties.

  photo  Staff Photo / Dried solid waste known as biosolids is shown at Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2013.

"The city told Synagro verbally not to go into Hamilton County because of public and media issues," the lawsuit says. "The city even asked Synagro to ignore a farmer that kept calling the city wanting material taken to his farm in Hamilton County."

The odor of the treated sewage has become a public issue in some locations, particularly at the Copperhill Industries site in Polk County.

Chattanooga city spokesperson Kevin Roig declined to comment and said City Attorney Phil Noblett was out of town.

But a June 30 letter from the city to Synagro regarding the company's breach of contract claims indicates the city views the claims as unsupported and refers to a previous letter to the company about not complying with contract terms related to transportation from the treatment plant to land application sites.

The city letter also cites possible state enforcement actions because of "Synagro's failure to properly store, handle and spread biosolid materials."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga plans $513 million worth of improvements to sewer infrastructure)

In addition to the city, the lawsuit names as a defendant the city's biosolids coordinator, Karen Styers. It alleges she took steps to replace the company, sought to get a company employee fired and one of her friends hired, arbitrarily changed the rules and threatened to have the company "fired" from the contract.

Styers "has made statements to Synagro evidencing a personal agenda against Synagro in an effort to deliberately impair Synagro's ability to perform under the contract to establish a pretextual justification for the city to terminate the contract," the lawsuit states. "Ms. Styers' unlawful actions against Synagro are motivated by her desire to replace Synagro with a contractor of her choosing, thereby allowing for the reinsertion of a friend into the biosolids-contractor relationship with the city."

  photo  Staff Photo / An employee of Recyc LLC, loads biosolids into a truck at Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant in June 2010.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga to take out $186 million low-interest loan for sewer upgrades)

Contacted by phone, Styers declined to comment.

In the lawsuit, Synagro seeks an order barring Styers from any further role in the contractual relationship and to be allowed to transport biosolids to the counties where permitted biosolids distribution sites exist within 75 miles of Chattanooga.

The lawsuit specifically seeks to be allowed to transport the materials to the Copperhill Industries site, where officials and residents in recent months have voiced strong opposition against the transportation or handling of biosolids in their community. Meetings were held in June for public discussions on biosolids and how they're handled.

The County Commission in Polk County passed a resolution almost a year ago seeking to bar land application of biosolids, even though the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation had put their stamp of approval on it and has deemed the materials safe.

Copperhill Industries and biosolids partner Denali Water Solutions and the state engaged in a pilot project to remediate the mining site at Copperhill, which was in operation from the 1800s to the 1980s, TDEC spokesperson Kim Schofinski said in an email in June.

(READ MORE: Waste spill creates mess on Corridor J)

The land in Polk County includes sites where mining, processing, chemical manufacturing and waste disposal resulted in the erosion of tens of millions of cubic yards of soil. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not listed the site on the National Priorities List but considers it a National Priorities List-caliber site, and Schofinski said the federal agency is addressing it through the "Superfund Alternative Approach."

The Superfund Alternative Approach — which uses the same investigation and cleanup process used for sites listed on the National Priorities List — includes the pilot project underway now at the site using biosolids, according to Schofinski. The biosolids are used as fertilizer or soil amendment for the purpose of restoring the remaining mine-scarred lands, and because of the nature of the project, Copperhill Industries does not have to seek a permit.

  photo  Staff Photo / Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant is shown in this photo from May 2011.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.