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Most people want to engage in confrontation about as much as they want to deal with sewage. In other words, it's a matter best avoided.

Thankfully in this day and age, most Arkansans get to avoid dealing with sewage, at least once it gets past the point of paying the bill that shows up every month. We pay a premium for systems that flush those troubles down the drain, but what we're really paying for is what happens after it leaves the building.

What’s the point?

Bethel Heights and the state have reached a collaborative agreement over its sewer issues, but whether the town can make progress remains in question.

Customers of municipal sewage treatment systems don't care to know the details as long as the toilet flushes, the sink drains and none of us have to worry about it again.

But someone has to worry about it, and one of the basic functions of local city and town governments is protecting the environment by effectively treating the waste of a growing Northwest Arkansas population. If a local government isn't taking care of that effectively, it's not meeting its responsibility to protect the health, welfare and safety of the public.

Bethel Heights, the tiny town between Springdale and Lowell, has made the news for months now because state officials say it has, for years, fallen short of expectations with sewage treatment for its 650 customers. Mayor Cynthia Black has denied the problem before, but in late October, she signed a consent order with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

Under the terms of that agreement, the city agreed to eventually find an alternative to its ailing sewage treatment plants, but work to fix the system's shortcomings in the meantime. The state suspended $81,200 in fines.

Honestly, it's hard to have much faith in this process. Bethel Heights' sewage woes have lingered for years and the state agency hasn't put a stop to the city's lack of compliance.

But this consent order would appear to put the state and Bethel Heights leaders on the same page, which could be called progress, we suppose. Actually meeting the expectations of the state -- and the public -- will require local leadership. That has appeared to be in short supply, but maybe things will change.

If it can be done through collaboration and cooperation, all the better. Nobody's should be eager for confrontation. But everyone should be eager for a solution.

From the outside looking in, the consent agreement looks a whole lot like the same approach that hasn't produced results in the past.

But we hope this idea that Bethel Heights, which can hardly justify its existence if it can't meet basic needs such as sewer treatment, should find alternatives leading the town toward becoming part of a bigger treatment system. Someone suggested to us the other day that Bethel Heights has outgrown its ability to exist. Maybe so.

It depends entirely on what its population wants and is willing to pay for. If it hasn't had the political will and resources to dig itself out of the pit so far, it's reasonable to doubt that ability for the future.

Commentary on 11/05/2019

Print Headline: Down the drain?

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