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Fort Smith Planning To Negotiate Sewer Upgrades

FORT SMITH, Ark. (KFSM) — The Fort Smith Board of Directors heard from an attorney about a status update on the consent decree requiring upgrades to the city se...

FORT SMITH, Ark. (KFSM) — The Fort Smith Board of Directors heard from an attorney about a status update on the consent decree requiring upgrades to the city sewer infrastructure.

The upgrades were required by law because of the overflows of raw sewage that went into the Arkansas River.

Since the consent decree was finalized five years ago, Fort Smith city officials say some progress has been made repairing and replacing the sewer infrastructure.

“The majority of the system has been assessed. We’re working through modeling because you want to know what your pipes can handle. We’ve done replacement work. We’ve built 55 million gallons worth of storage," Carl Geffken, City Administrator said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initially estimated $255-million of work would be done in 12 years, but that number went up significantly when the city saw the extent of the work needed.

Sewer rates for citizens have increased 167-percent since 2015.

“There are a few parts of the descent decree that are requiring us to do work that is not needed, and when you look at the rate burden for the citizens of Fort Smith, it exceeds almost every other city if not all other cities in the country," Geffken said.

The city is calling the current program unaffordable.

“Normally, people fear the department of justice. It’s the world’s largest law firm, but when you’re broke, and you owe hundreds of millions of dollars, we don’t fear a federal judge. We hope a federal judge will be reasonable and recognize that the city is doing it’s utmost best to comply," Paul Calamita, consent decree attorney said.

Geffken is going into a meeting with federal regulators hoping to negotiate changes to the consent decree

“We know how we got here. We don’t need to rehash the past. What we’re saying is we will move forward. We believe in compliance. The board believes in compliance, but that needs to be balanced off with the ability to pay and the right timeline," Geffken said.

Fort Smith city officials are headed to Dallas Wednesday (Jan. 29) to meet with representatives with the U.S. Department of Justice and the EPA.