City Works To Rehab Memphis’ Sewer System 

It's a shitty job, but somebody's got to do it.

Those somebodies are the workers tasked with repairing the city's sewer lines through the Sewer Assessment and Rehabilitation Program (SARP10), a 10-year project required by a 2012 consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).

"We're going throughout the city assessing the condition of the existing sewer lines and manholes. And then we come up with a plan for fixing the things that are broken," said Brad Davis, the technical lead for SARP10 and an engineering manager at Black & Veatch, the contractor partnering with the city on the sewer project.

SARP10 launched in September 2014, and they've already wrapped up work in some of the older parts of town — areas of Midtown, downtown, and Hickory Hill. The project is moving to Frayser and Northaven this month.

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Back in 2010, TDEC and the EPA were in negotiations with Memphis about sewer repair when the Tennessee Clean Water Network sent a notice of intent to sue the city. That resulted in the 2012 consent decree that requires the sewer assessment.

"There was a very high rate of sanitary sewer overflows, which is when raw sewage is released into the environment. That includes overflows to streets, yards, streams, and basement back ups," said Stephanie Durman, general counsel for the Tennessee Clean Water Network, as to why the organization threatened to sue.

Now the city and Black & Veach have nine years left to complete the assessment, which will cost an estimated $250 million.

"This will minimize breaking pipes," said Bobby Allen, administrator of environmental construction with the city's Public Works department. "If we did not fix them, the pipes could collapse, and you could have the ground eroding out from underneath the street. You could also have sewage coming out of a manhole."

Davis says the basic premise for the city's sewer system dates back to the late 1870s, following the Yellow Fever epidemic that killed 5,000 Memphians. That's when George Waring, Jr., a drainage engineer for New York's Central Park, developed a state-of-the-art (at the time, anyway) system that separated the sanitary system from the storm water.

Much of that original system was made from wooden pipes, but Allen says most of those have been replaced over the years. So far, they've only uncovered one wooden pipe during the assessment.

As the project moves to various neighborhoods, Allen said the city will dispatch a "green team" of young adult volunteers to canvass the area and alert residents that workers will be doing smoke tests.

"The contractor sets up equipment on two manholes in the middle of the street, and they blow smoke through a segment of pipe," said Davis. "If the pipe is completely tight, there's no smoke that comes out of the line. If there are defects in the pipe or there are cracks in the joints, the smoke will find its way out of the pipe, and you'll see it coming up at the surface."

Residents may also see that smoke coming into their homes. Davis said if there's a defect in a home's plumbing, the smoke may come inside the house. But Allen says residents shouldn't be alarmed.

"The smoke is not harmful. It doesn't stain or smell," Allen said. "You can open a window and not have any residual effects."

When the workers do find those defects, Davis said homeowners are alerted so they can make repairs if they wish to. The city will only repair defects in the public system, he said. Much of that repair work will be in the street, but Allen said, in some cases, the city might have to dig up a few yards.

"The city has easements where the pipes run through yards between houses," Allen said. "It's possible that we will have to do some work in people's yards."

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