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Bethel Heights ceases to exist Friday afternoon

by Laurinda Joenks | August 23, 2020 at 4:23 a.m.
Al Drinkwater (from left), a volunteer environmental quality consultant, helps answer questions Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, for Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities, Chris Clark, financial analyst for Springdale Water Utilities; and Kim Patulak, human resources director for the city, as the four inspect the former Bethel Heights wastewater treatment facility. The Benton County Election Commission certified that the results of an Aug. 11 election to annex Bethel Heights into Springdale. Visit nwaonline.com/200823Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

SPRINGDALE -- Bethel Heights ceased to exist a little after 6 p.m. Friday.

Benton County's Election Commission on Friday certified its results of the Aug. 11 special election calling for Bethel Heights to annex into Springdale. The Washington County Election Commission did the same for votes cast in its county at 1 p.m. Friday.

Residents of both cities proposed the annexation to resolve the issue of Bethel Heights' failing sewer system. The measure passed by 70%, with 1,467 voters in Springdale and Bethel Heights voting yes and 334 voting no.

Former Bethel Heights residents over the next few months will receive sewer service from Springdale Water Utilities, which also provides their water, said Heath Ward, executive director of the municipal utility.

Springdale officials have worked on the transition of city services from Bethel Heights to Springdale for the last couple of weeks.

Some of Bethel Heights' woes now become Springdale's, while others go away and still others remain up in air.

The Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality had Bethel Heights under investigation for more than a year for mismanagement of its wastewater treatment system. Several other agencies became involved, trying to bring the beleaguered treatment system into compliance.

Bethel Heights on Thursday asked the Benton County Circuit Court to dismiss two lawsuits seeking to block annexation that two families had requested from Springdale.

A email request Thursday for comment from former Bethel Heights officials wasn't returned.

STATE EVALUATES

Bethel Heights operated a STEP system to treat its wastewater. The system was designed to partially treat wastewater before slowly dispersing it underground into fields at the plants, leaving the natural features of the Earth to complete treatment.

The state opened an investigation in April 2019 after a complaint by Lawrence Bowen. Bowen, who lives next door to the city's treatment plant on Lincoln Drive, said partially treated wastewater from the plant pooled in his yard.

"The Division of Environmental Quality is currently assessing the situation and evaluating options," Jacob Harper, a spokesman for the agency, said Wednesday in response to questions about the status of the Bethel Heights investigation. "DEQ did previously communicate that city of Bethel Heights' system was in a state of continued noncompliance."

The state division in June asked Springdale Water Utilities to place a moratorium on new water service to any customer connected to the Bethel Heights sewer system. The Springdale utility provided -- and continues to provide -- the water service for residents of Bethel Heights.

Ward on Wednesday told the Springdale Water and Sewer Commission the state hasn't said whether the moratorium is lifted.

Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith on Tuesday stepped away from his threat of criminal charges against Bethel Heights city officials.

"The pursuit of criminal charges was always the last resort in this investigation since the ultimate goal was to have the city provide the necessary services to the citizens," Smith said Tuesday. "Since ADEQ and Bethel Heights were still in talks to resolve these issues, the filing of criminal charges had not become necessary.

"While I have not closed the investigation yet, I anticipate making that decision soon. I am confident that the city of Springdale will do all it can do to resolve the problems."

The Benton County Sheriff's Office in June used a warrant to search the treatment plant on Lincoln Drive. Investigators took water samples and a computer.

Neither the sheriff's nor prosecutor's office have reported the results of what was found.

LOAN LOSS

Bethel Heights sewer customers faced a pricey obligation with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

The city had secured $11.6 million in loans from the commission to help pay for the lift station and pipeline needed to carry wastewater to another plant. The terms of the loan included a 66% increase in the cost of sewer services.

"The loan application submitted by Bethel Heights will be considered withdrawn since the city will be merged into Springdale and the proposed loans will no longer be considered," reads a Tuesday statement from Anna Thrash, public information manager for the commission. "We have no further involvements with Bethel Heights or Springdale."

Ward said local legislators traveled last week to Little Rock to seek money to pay to run the system legally and decommission it. Grants might be available for cleanup and mitigation of environmental impact, he said.

"We're cleaning up a big problem for the ADEQ," Ward said. "We're cleaning up a big problem for the Legislature. We're cleaning up a big problem for the governor. We're cleaning up a big problem for the state."

[Gallery not loading above? Click here for more photos » arkansasonline.com/823bethel/]

Ward expects immediate measures -- including hauling wastewater away from the Bethel Heights treatment plants each day -- to total about $250,000 while a more permanent fix may cost $1.5 million.

The Springdale utility over the last two weeks has pumped roughly a million gallons from Bethel Heights' system, Ward said. The water was transferred to the Springdale Waste Water Treatment Plant on North Silent Grove Road.

Presuming White River Environmental Systems charges Springdale the same rate it did Bethel Heights -- $400 for every 5,000 gallons hauled -- the Springdale utility owes $80,000 for the last two weeks.

The state in August 2019 told Bethel Heights it must haul for treatment elsewhere 25% of its daily input of 80,000 gallons of wastewater or no less than 20,000 gallons a day until wastewater stopped surfacing on the ground. During the week of July 13-19, Bethel Heights trucked about 87,000 gallons of wastewater to the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority's plant in Bentonville, costing $54,834, according to invoices the city supplied to the state.

DEBTS OWED

Springdale officials will get a look this week to determine if Bethel Heights held any outstanding debt or left bills unpaid, said Wyman Morgan, Springdale's director of administration and finance.

Ward said a few Bethel Heights vendors related to the wastewater system called, and outstanding bills will be sent to the Springdale water utility office.

"We told them to be patient, and we'll figure it out," he said.

Morgan added state law requires Springdale to hold any money coming from Bethel Heights accounts or the sale of its assets separate from Springdale's accounts until all the former city's bills are paid.

Morgan noted his job will be easier thanks to state auditors who reviewed Bethel Heights' records for a couple of weeks before the election. He will use their report as a starting place rather than having to pore through the city's accounts himself.

The city's last legislative audit was in 2017, so auditors checked the books for 2018, 2019 and 2020 up to this point, he said.

CLEARING COBWEBS

Robert Rhodes of Fayetteville on Thursday filed motions with the Benton County Circuit Court to dismiss lawsuits seeking to block the annexation of two families' land Springdale City Council voted unanimously to accept.

Rhodes, a Fayetteville attorney, represented Bethel Heights city officials throughout the state investigation.

Both families requested annexation to Springdale under a state law allowing a property owner to annex into an adjacent city if the controlling city cannot provide services, but the adjacent city can, saidd Springdale City Attorney Ernest Cate.

Springdale in June 2019 annexed 100 acres owned by the Loneta Blevins family in several parcels west of North Thompson Street and Wagon Wheel Road intersection, north to Hiland Avenue.

In September, Springdale accepted 73 acres owned by the Charlotte Steele family, which sits just south of the Lincoln Drive wastewater treatment plant. The family said they also experienced wastewater flowing onto their land.

Al Drinkwater (left), a volunteer environmental quality consultant, and Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities, inspect equipment Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, at the former Bethel Heights wastewater treatment facility. The Benton County Election Commission certified that the results of an Aug. 11 election to annex Bethel Heights into Springdale. Visit nwaonline.com/200823Daily/ for today's photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Al Drinkwater (left), a volunteer environmental quality consultant, and Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities, inspect equipment Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, at the former Bethel Heights wastewater treatment facility. The Benton County Election Commission certified that the results of an Aug. 11 election to annex Bethel Heights into Springdale. Visit nwaonline.com/200823Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Chris Clark (from left), financial analyst for Springdale Water Utilities, and Kim Patulak, human resources director for the city of Springdale, check out equipment Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, alongside Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities, and Al Drinkwater, a volunteer environmental quality consultant, as the four inspect the former Bethel Heights wastewater treatment facility. The Benton County Election Commission certified that the results of an Aug. 11 election to annex Bethel Heights into Springdale. Visit nwaonline.com/200823Daily/ for today's photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Chris Clark (from left), financial analyst for Springdale Water Utilities, and Kim Patulak, human resources director for the city of Springdale, check out equipment Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, alongside Heath Ward, executive director of Springdale Water Utilities, and Al Drinkwater, a volunteer environmental quality consultant, as the four inspect the former Bethel Heights wastewater treatment facility. The Benton County Election Commission certified that the results of an Aug. 11 election to annex Bethel Heights into Springdale. Visit nwaonline.com/200823Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Laurinda Joenks can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWALaurinda.

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