Murky Waters

City plant discharges sewage into local rivers and streams; environmental group threatens lawsuit.

| December 17, 2009
A kayaker paddles through a pool of white foam phosphorus polluting the Mississippi River.
A kayaker paddles through a pool of white foam phosphorus polluting the Mississippi River.
- photo courtesy the tennessee clean water network

The Mississippi River is famous for its muddy appearance, but dirt isn't the only brown stuff lurking in Memphis' portion of the river.

From January 2005 to September 2009, the city's Maynard C. Stiles Waste Treatment Plant on North Second Street reported 1,170 overflows in which a total of 23 million gallons of raw sewage leaked into city streets, yards, and the Mississippi River and its tributaries. In addition, a sewage line broke in April 2008 and leaked 45 million more gallons of sewage over a 25-day period.

The city-run waste treatment facility self-reported that information, as required by its Tennessee Department of Conservation permit. And now the Tennessee Clean Water Network, an independent environmental advocacy group based in Knoxville, has filed notice of its intent to sue the city over those violations of the Clean Water Act.

"The outcome we're hoping for is that the city will make the necessary improvements to the plant and the collection system," said Renee Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network.

A spokesperson for Mayor A C Wharton's office said public works officials weren't able to talk about the case since it's a pending legal matter, but confirmed that the city is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to remedy the problems.

The raw sewage that leaked during the overflows contained all sorts of pollutants, including E. coli, parasitic organisms, intestinal worms, and inhaled molds and fungi.

"Some sewage waste comes from household stuff, like your cleaning chemicals that you dump down the drain," Hoyos said. "If you painted your living room and washed your brushes in the sink, that's in there. If you dump pills down the toilet, that's in there."

Hoyos isn't sure what caused the overflows, but said some are likely caused by aging infrastructure. The M.C. Stiles plant was built in 1977.

"The trunk lines collect all the flushes, and the pipes are very old," Hoyos said. "They break like anything else, and they get worn down or clogged up with grease. Sometimes they get crushed by traffic."

The clean water network alleges that not only has the M.C. Stiles plant caused numerous illegal overflows, it's also been discharging white floating foam into the Mississippi River.

"The white foam is caused by phosphorus and that comes from cleaning products," Hoyos said. "Soap companies add phosphorus to make soaps foamy, but when discharged into the Mississippi River, it's contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico."

In addition, the clean water network alleges that the M.C. Stiles plant is bypassing necessary treatment mechanisms before discharging waste into the Mississippi River. Though the plant is permitted to discharge treated waste into the river, a local kayaker has photographed solid materials, such as condoms, in the effluent discharged from the plant on several occasions. Proper treatment removes such solids from the waste.

"There's a lot of people in Memphis interested in making Memphis a place where you can recreate outdoors instead of having to drive to White River in Arkansas," Hoyos said. "But you can't put a canoe in the Wolf when millions of gallons of sewage are being leaked into it."

Comments (11)

Showing 1-11 of 11

It's gotten pretty nasty. Just the other day at Sports Authority I saw a gar purchasing a wetsuit.

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Posted by Phlo on 12/17/2009 at 1:41 PM

Hoocoodanode!?!?!

Constitutionally, we are illegally regulating the dumping of sewage. If people don't like raw sewage, the free market will induce them to live where there isn't any being dumped and the dumpers of raw sewage will go out of business.

Yes, this CHG joke is getting old, but hey, this is Vegas, baby.

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Posted by Jeff on 12/17/2009 at 1:57 PM

If people would just learn to hold it, this wouldn't be an issue.

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Posted by urbanut on 12/17/2009 at 2:14 PM

We shouldn't be dumping into the Mississippi north of town. We should do it south of town. It isn't brain surgery.

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Posted by 38103 on 12/17/2009 at 2:44 PM

I think we do dump south of town also, zip. I believe there's a treatment plant near the TVA Allen steam plant in Ensley Bottoms.

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Posted by Packrat on 12/17/2009 at 2:48 PM

While I appreciate the long term environmental damage, pardon me if I don't get nearly as upset over the soap suds as I do over the E.Coli and other stuff.

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Posted by Powergamz on 12/17/2009 at 7:59 PM

Can we say that Harbor town and down town probably just saw real estate values drop 20%. Now someone that lives down there and walks near the river is going to pop out a 3 legged child and the city is going to have a class action against it. Maybe they could just pump it into the pyramid and hold it there. All this time I thought they were selling it to West Memphis.

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Posted by gbbarnes on 12/17/2009 at 8:52 PM

While satanic amerika spends trillions on warmongering against the planets peoples..its own citizens are living in a collapsing and ever unhealthy environment..A massive revolution is the only answer..mj ssg usa ret

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Posted by TRUTHOUT on 12/18/2009 at 6:46 AM

TRUTHOUT: Yeah, I remember when I had MY first beer...

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Posted by Phlo on 12/18/2009 at 8:35 AM

Viva la revolucion!

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Posted by urbanut on 12/18/2009 at 8:50 AM

A little shame can work miracles sometimes. I hope the story breaks nationally... But then we live in a country that doesn't blink when 3 million dollars are spent to investigate 911...and a 100 million spent to investigate Bill Clinton's blow job...

Hey...I was trying to say something revolutionary...

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Posted by Kirantana on 12/24/2009 at 10:25 AM
Showing 1-11 of 11

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