Utilities district faces suit over new problem with creek: E. coli

Monday, June 10, 2013 at 10:05pm

Steven Hawkins, who lives off River Road Pike in a rural part of northwest Nashville, was part of a group of residents that sued the Harpeth Valley Utilities District in 2011 over the construction of pipelines that damaged a nearby creek.

Hawkins made another troubling discovery last year that has led to a second lawsuit. He was walking his 30-acre property near Overall Creek when he discovered a black spot on the creek bank. A lab test of a sampling from the spot showed high levels of E. coli, which he claims indicated the presence of human waste. The bacteria can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and other diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Hawkins’ suit is the latest of in a series of legal troubles stemming from Harpeth Valley Utilities’ sewer line implementation near Overall Creek. The utility provides services to parts of Davidson and Williamson County.

The previous allegation, levied in 2011 by six West Nashville residents, claimed that the construction of a sewer project from 2003-2008 adversely affected Overall Creek.

“The facts are that the stream bed is dry in long stretches downstream from the [construction] and the loss of continuous, seasonable historic flow has made it unusable for livestock, irrigation, wildlife, recreation and caused loss of aquatic life,” the lawsuit claims.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation reviewed the complaint and conducted biological tests on the creek. Results determined that the creek was below the threshold for supporting aquatic life. Just five years earlier, the creek supported a “healthy and diverse aquatic community,” according to TDEC documents.

Harpeth Valley Utilities District was fined $287,750, but that amount could be recalculated if flow is restored to the stream. The remediation plan backed by TDEC involves a sewer line excavation plan as well as more investigatory measures to determine the cause of the problem.

But in a court filing the utilities district claims that no scientific evidence has proven that the sewer line caused the creek problems. Rather, the creek drying could be due to factors like “drought, diversion and streamside development upstream.”

Harpeth Valley Utilities formally appealed the TDEC decision, but a hearing date hasn’t been set.

“The consulting engineers to the District have been performing testing in the area and have advised the District that the public sanitary sewer line has not affected Overall Creek. The District has agreed to do additional testing which has not been completed,” the utility said in a statement.

The latest lawsuit, filed last week in Davidson County Circuit Court, stems from Hawkins’ more recent discovery. According to the suit, Hawkins contacted the utility last year about the lab results indicating the presence of E. coli bacteria and the potential sewage leak.

HVUD told The City Paper in a written statement that the University of Tennessee sampled the sewage and determined that it came from cattle waste, not human waste.

Hawkins tested his own sewer lines and no leaks were found.

“As a consequence of the ongoing discharge of human sewage onto the property of Hawkins and into the creek, these circumstances constitute a direct and continuing physical invasion of property,” his lawsuit reads.

Ultimately, the suit asks for damages related to the leak and for injunctive relief to force the utility to fix the problem.

HVUD said it hadn’t been served with the most recent lawsuit but would “respond fully” with an answer in court.