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story.lead_photo.caption A tanker truck with White River Environmental Services, LLC., is visible Tuesday, May 12, 2020, at the Bethel Heights Lincoln Street Waste Water Treatment Plant system in Bethel Heights. Check out nwadg.com/photos for a photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

BENTONVILLE -- A judge Friday evening ordered Bethel Heights to take all measures necessary to stop wastewater from forming puddles on the grounds at its treatment plants.

Benton County Circuit Judge John Scott ruled Friday in a lawsuit filed in March against the city filed by the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality.

The state asked the judge to order the city take make repairs to its wastewater treatment system it agreed in October to make. ADEQ had also asked Scott to impose $80,000 in fines the agency suspended last year. It dropped that request before Friday's trial.

Scott in his ruling quoted directly from the agreement.

Samuel Ledbetter, an attorney representing the city, said the city had already done what it agreed to and was seeing results.

ADEQ opened an investigation into Bethel Heights system in 2019 after Lawrence Bowen filed a complaint about wastewater from the treatment plant on Lincoln Street flowing and pooling in his yard. Bowen and his wife, Joetta, live next door on the east side of the plant.

Bethel Heights operates a STEP system, which partially treats wastewater from its roughly 650 customers. After removal of solids, the system releases the water through a drip irrigation system, relying on the soil to complete the purification process.

Records show the city has been out of compliance with its state permit more often than in compliance since 2015 and had problems with wastewater pooling as early as 2013.

State inspectors have said untreated wastewater continues to pool above ground at the city's two treatment plants and run into the yards of adjacent property owners. The runoff and pooling violate the city's permit from the state.

A June 16 report from the city shows pooling above all treatment zones of the city's plant on Lincoln Street.

The city and state officials signed an agreement in October saying the city would repair its wastewater treatment system and find an alternative method for treatment.

Mayor Cynthia Black and attorneys representing the city declined comment after Scott's ruling. Attorneys representing the state attended the meeting via Zoom.

Ledbetter argued the agreement didn't list a deadline for the plants' compliance.

Scott said he understood the deadline as Nov. 20, 2019 -- the effective date set in the agreement. Environmental Quality officials in January and March found the city again out of compliance with its permit as the plants continued to operate, Scott noted.

"Nobody expected they would have these problems solved 17 days" after signing the agreement, Ledbetter said. "They testified to that," he said of ADEQ officials.

Aaron Bensing, an engineer for Hawkins-Weir Engineers, said a deadline was never discussed in his many conversations with the division since November. Bensing said he and his staff prepared the reports the state required of the city in the agreement.

Black and Richard Healey, enforcement manager for the Office of Water Quality in the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality, agreed a deadline for improvements was never set.

Bethel Heights has taken measures to fix its ailing wastewater treatment system, but not enough, said Richard Healey, enforcement manager for the Office of Water Quality in the Arkansas Division of Environmental Quality.

Healey said the agreement order between the city and the division says the city "must take all necessary measures to prevent wastewater pooling, ponding and surfacing" at the plant.

He also said he wouldn't consider the city in compliance with the agreement or its 2015 operating permit until the land at the Lincoln Street plant is dry.

The November agreement required the city to submit by various deadlines: an engineer's report of the current conditions of the system, a long-term plan for treating the city's wastewater and a plan to repair and operate the current plant until a new treatment option is in place.

Black testified the city provided all reports by their deadlines. She testified the city had taken all the actions asked of it by the state.

Ledbetter said the city has put in place several measures to stop the pooling since the lawsuit was filed. Black said they include new drip lines for dispersal of treated wastewater, a new control system for the plants and storage tanks to hold 126,000 gallons of water.

The city also has increased the amount of water hauled for treatment elsewhere. The state ordered the city in August to haul 20,000 gallons a day from its plants.

The city has hauled 90,000 gallons a day to an alternative treatment plant in Bentonville as conditions at the plants dictated, Ledbetter said. He said weekly reports from the city show it's sending 720,000 gallons a week to the Northwest Arkansas Conservation Authority's treatment plant.

The city has spent $1.5 million on hauling away water and repairs to the current system, Ledbetter said.

Scott said this case applied only to the city's actions and conditions of the drip fields up to the filing of the suit in March. He said he reviewed for his ruling weekly and monthly reports the city submitted to the state under the agreement. He said those report showed the volume of water going into the plant for treatment in December and January exceeded the plants' capacity to treat it.

"It does appear the city is on the right path with some things," Scott said.

The city last week asked for a delay in the trial. It noted, among other issues, the case could be moot by next month. A special election is set for Aug. 11 to annex Bethel Heights into Springdale.

The ballot issue was forced by a petition drive from people in both cities.

Springdale already provides water to Bethel Heights, but refused a request to provide wastewater treatment.

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

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