The smoke testing, which has become a familiar headline to CU customers over the past year, is one of several tools used by technicians to identify leaks in existing sewer lines that allow inflow and infiltration. I/I, as it is known by most, is the seepage of extraneous (unwanted) water into CU’s sanitary wastewater system through broken lines, cracks or damaged manholes.
I/I is a contributing cause of flash flooding and street overflows in many areas of the city during periods of heavy rainfall. The overflows can also create potential health hazards whose level of severity could force the Environmental Protection Agency and state water quality control agencies to slap CU with fines for violation of the NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit. Such penalties could also include sewer moratoriums which would inhibit future growth and economic development until sewer system defects have been corrected.
In surrounding communities like Knoxville, Brentwood, Nashville, Chattanooga and Oak Ridge, utility companies have been forced by EPA to impose dramatic rate increases on customers in order to create revenue to fund needed improvements. Rate increases reportedly have ranged from 25 to 330 percent.
Instead of awaiting potential EPA action, Cleveland Utilities in 2011 launched its SCOPE 10 initiative. SCOPE 10 is an acronym standing for Strategic Commitment to Protect the Environment, and the project is expected to cover the next decade.
In order to fund SCOPE 10, CU Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Ken Webb is budgeting planned sewer rate hikes of 4.5 percent in Fiscal Years 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and a 5 percent increase in FY 2019 and 2020. These proposals remain subject to change depending on unexpected costs or decreases in sales volume which directly affect the utility’s operating margins.
The gradual rate hikes are intended to stave off any massive EPA-mandated hikes that other cities and their public utilities are now facing.
SCOPE 10 aims to investigate CU’s entire sewer system to hopefully eliminate, or at the very least drastically reduce, I/I and any future threats of overflows, residential backups or even damage to the wastewater treatment plant caused by excessive water intake. At its launch, SCOPE 10 was thought to cost about $15 million; however, once technicians and CU crews began their first year of work, it became evident the severity of damage in older sections of the sewer system was extensive. Budget estimates, also impacted by rising costs of materials, quickly rose to $30 million.
Greg Clark, CU wastewater rehabilitation manager who has been named to head the SCOPE 10 initiative, said the next round of smoke testing — to start sometime this week depending on the weather — will include the following roads and neighborhoods: Hickory Drive, Peerless Road, Wagner Circle, Wolfe Drive, Georgia Circle, Old 25th Street, Mt. Vernon Road, College View Drive, Adkisson Drive, Blair Road, Raven Drive, Cingan Ridge Drive, Glenwood Drive, Hickory View Drive, Hackberry Drive, Eastview Circle, Walnut Drive, Brentwood Drive, Georgetown Road, Executive Park Drive, Norman Chapel Road, Westside Drive and Vista Drive.
Prior to the start of smoke testing in specific neighborhoods, Cleveland Utilities makes announcements through area news media outlets and also distributes leaflets at homes in the affected areas. The fliers explain the smoke testing process and what area residents and homeowners can expect.
One section of the flier describes the type of smoke used and any health conditions it can affect if it gets into a home.
“You can expect to see smoke escape through vent stacks on the roof of your home or business,” the CU leaflet stresses. “This is a sign that the building’s plumbing is properly installed.”
Of the smoke, it points out, “The smoke being used is made specifically for this purpose. It appears white and has a slight odor of mineral oil. It is not a fire hazard and leaves no residue. The smoke is non-toxic, but may cause minor throat irritation if inhaled in quantity. Therefore, persons with respiratory conditions such as asthma or bronchitis should leave their residence if smoke should enter their home.”
CU invites area residents to contact the utility or the Utility Technologies project manager (Brad Miller at 423-584-3529) if they have questions. Residents may also contact the CU Water Division at 423-478-9387. Once crews are working in their neighborhoods, residents are also invited to approach workers to address concerns, ask questions or to request proper identification.
Clark understands smoke testing can be a scary event for residents who don’t understand the process.
“We certainly apologize for any inconvenience this may cause area residents and utility customers,” Clark said. “That’s why we work to get out the word and to keep the community aware of what we’re doing, and most importantly, why we’re doing it.”
A final section on the leaflet addresses the purpose of SCOPE 10.
“We sincerely appreciate your cooperation and patience as we continue our efforts to meet the requirements of the Tennessee Department of Water Pollution Control, and to provide a safe and clean environment for both the people and wildlife in the Cleveland and Bradley County area in which to work and live,” the flier stresses.