manhole

This manhole, which stands between Legion Field and Cedar Street in Providence, was where the city's wastewater treatment plant emptied raw sewage out into the open during an event on Feb. 2, 2017. The Division of Water/EPA insists that the event could have been avoided, a fact that is denied by former Mayor Eddie Gooch. 

Former Providence Mayor Eddie Gooch appeared at Monday night's city council meeting to defend both himself and the city's wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) in the wake of a report that appeared in last week's edition of the J-E on Division of Water and EPA violations. Gooch categorizing the news report as "fake news" and called the violations from the Division of Water and EPA "untrue," despite having signed an Agreed Order admitted to those violations over a year earlier.

"We never knowingly or willingly violated any law," Gooch stated. "We never knowingly stored sewage on Legion Field. Sewage runs down hill, and that location is one of the lowest in town."

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An Agreed Order refers to a written agreement submitted by the parties to a case settling the issues between them. An Agreed Order is similar to a Plea Deal in criminal court, in which one party admits guilt in favor of getting a more lenient penalty. Once the Agreed Order is approved by the court, it becomes the order or decree of the court with all of the force and effect that any order would have after a full hearing of the court.

Despite the former mayor's claim that the report and the violations are all false, the Agreed Order and attached notice of violations state that: "the facility is not being properly operated and maintained" and insist that "a field adjacent to the plant has been used as a storage basin, during rain events, for raw sewage."

Gooch pointed out that the violation took place not inside the fenced in area of Legion Field away from the public, as previously speculated, but on the open front lawn of the property, near Cedar Street.

When questioned in an earlier phone interview about why the Agreed Order he signed says this was a "planned event" or why the order states that "the event was known to city officials and they failed to make required notifications," the former mayor said someone else would have to answer those questions.

At Monday's meeting, WWTP operator Terry Rice also said the Division of Water violation notice and the Agreed Order were not true, stating that the violations were self imposed.

Gooch stated that the real issue with the entire situation was with rainwater runoff infiltrating the city's sewer lines. During periods of heavy rainfall, water seeps into the pipes as sewage makes its way across town to the treatment plant on Cedar Street. By the time it arrives there, it has often built up to levels that the plant simply cannot handle.

When that happens the water has to overflow somewhere. In this case, its the manhole in front of Legion Field.

"Its a problem every city that has a treatment plant faces," Gooch stated. "That plant is big enough for the city of Providence 97 percent of the time. The only time it was not was when he had almost twice the normal amount of rainfall and the storm water infiltrated our lines. We could not control that and we were not in violation."

This statement is in direct conflict with the violation notice, which states, "The city planned the bypass event in advance. It was known to the city that a bypass would occur at the field adjacent to the plant due to a failed pump. The city could have acquired a temporary pump to avoid the bypass but failed to do so."

Gooch insists that the situation was completely out of the city's control, but then added that Rice spent $7,000 later that day to purchase a pump to fix the problem.

When asked why he signed the legally binding Agreed Order with the Division of Water and the EPA without first presenting it to the council, Gooch said during the phone interview that there was no need.

"I didn't get council approval because I didn't need it," he said. "They had no authority to change anything. When the EPA tells you to sign something, you sign it. I wasn't going to violate the law and not fix something they said must be fixed."

The law does appear to be on Gooch's side. KRS 83A.130 (8) states that "All bonds, notes, contracts and written obligations of the city shall be made and executed by the mayor or his agent designated by executive order."

However, in most cases when a mayor signs to make a written legal obligation for the city, it is either presented to the council for pre-approval or it is done through executive order, which is approved after the fact. In this case it appears Gooch did neither as no record of the Agreed Order has been found in city council meetings from the period it was signed.

He did, however, say that he spoke with each council members about the situation outside of open meetings.

Gooch also took issue with the implication that nothing had been done, pointing out that the city had employed an engineer who had been working on the problem.

"A lot of work has been done," he stated. "I've seen the drawings of what needs to be done."

Beginning in January of 2018, the city employed Mike Arnold of ML Arnold and Associates, LLC of Madisonville to engineer the city's solution to the Agreed Order. During a one year period he billed the city for more than $59,000 in labor.

Gooch argued that Arnold was paid out of discretionary departmental funds that were set aside for such instances, implying the engineer was never officially a city employee and his hiring did not need to be approved by the council.

City officials now say that earlier this year Arnold packed up and moved to Texas without completing the project, leaving the city in a bind. Most likely, all of the work he did before leaving will have to be redone by the engineer the city hopes to hire in June.

Former mayor Gooch informed the council on Monday that he had discussed the matter with Rice, and the WWTP operator had found several engineers willing to continue the project using Arnold's previous work.

Gooch confirmed that there was not a contract with Arnold or his company.

"I never signed a contract with him because he couldn't tell me what it was going to cost," he said. "I told him 'I want you to bill the city every single month for whatever you do. That way if we get to a point where I think we've spent too much (explicative) money, I'll tell you to stop. Until that happens, you keep dong it'."

If there had been a contract, the city could have looked to recoup at least some of the $59,000 spent on the project, but without it, Arnold was under no obligation to complete the work before quitting.

One of the steps Gooch said he had discussed with Arnold was the construction of an open storage reservoir at Legion Field. He said drawings for that project had nearly been completed.

Gooch stated that the reservoir would have been as simple as building dirt berms, or retaining walls, around an area large enough to contain the overflow. The area would then have to be lined with a material that would prevent the sewage from contaminating the ground water.

He added that this was part of the reason the city purchased Legion Field.

It seems unlikely that this solution is still in the works, as current mayor Doug Hammers is working to have the overgrown field and building cleaned up in hopes putting it to use. He has stated recently that the building would make a good permanent home for a group like the Tourism Commission, Chamber of Commerce or Coal Festival Committee.

Reach MATT HUGHES at 270-667-2068 or matt@journalenterprise.com.