DELPHI - Indiana Department of Environmental Management, IDEM, and the Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District, TLRSD, were on the hot seat Tuesday during a special meeting held by Carroll County commissioners.
IDEM representatives were invited to address concerns of Carroll County residents who will either be required to hook up to TLRSD sewer lines, or feel threatened with inclusion in the district in the future.
In the late 1990s previous commissioners invited TLRSD into Carroll County to provide service to homeowners on Lake Freeman in the northwest portion of the county.
In 2000, TLRSD notified IDEM it was expanding its boundary to include that area, but eventually it was expanded further to include all of the east side of the lake down to Oakdale Dam, and areas on the east side of US 421.
TLRSD began running lines earlier this year, but for the past two or more years, many residents away from the lake have opposed inclusion.
The approximately 65 residents in attendance Tuesday, held in the Carroll Circuit Courtroom rather than the smaller Commissioners Room, wanted to learn of any recourse to put a halt to TLRSD encroachment.
Commissioner Bill Brown set the tone of the meeting with an opening statement.
"Over the past years commissioners of Carroll County have received hundreds of requests from citizens and property owners in northwest Carroll County hoping that we do something to curb what they see as the tyranny of the Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District," Brown said.
Citing little or no representation for Carroll County on the TLRSD board of directors, lack of information about the TLRSD project into Carroll County, high rates threatening loss of property for those on fixed incomes, and the potential for a failed sewer system as well as other concerns, Brown said "they are putting their debt on the backs of Carroll County citizens."
Brown acknowledged that previous commissioners had invited TLRSD into the county for what they thought was in the best interest of the county.
That was a mistake, Brown said.
"We tried to uninvite them because of the high cost of engineering, and we tried to get them to cut back on the territory, but once they got their foot in OUR door" that was it, Brown said.
With few exceptions by those in favor of the TLRSD most of the audience rose in a standing ovation.
IDEM role limited
Acknowledging the concerns summed up by Brown, IDEM Assistant Commissioner of Water Quality Bruno Pigott said IDEM's role in addressing problems with TLRSD is limited.
"Many of the concerns of the commissioners and citizens I have heard - concerns about tactics that were unfair, bills from a system that is not operable this year and treatment by TLRSD," said Pigott.
He explained that IDEM's role is regulatory to ensure regulations set out in Indiana Code 13-26 forming a regional sewer district board are met, and that treated sewage and discharge areas meet environmental regulations.
For the most part, Pigott added that, "local government and citizens know best what's good for them."
Since a regional sewer district board is a local government body, either elected or appointed, IDEM has limited control over it.
He said that boundaries are stated within a petition, and the board is responsible for operating the district.
"The regional district board is the decision maker for their community as it relates to regional district issues," Pigott said.
Pigott acknowledged that TLRSD rates are hard for some people to pay.
"The $65 fee is in the purview of Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District, but I know it's hard on those with fixed incomes," Pigott said.
"The regional sewer district decides who hooks up, then they take out loans and they have to ensure there is a stream of revenue that is enough to handle (payments)."
There are some avenues for citizens though Pigott said.
For example a district needs construction permits and IDEM reviews the plans in conjunction with that, but citizens have an appeal period.
Citizens can also appeal an NPDES discharge permit as well.
"They must meet levels of E.coli, solids and each pollutant. That process requires public notification, and allows for a public hearing and appeal," Pigott explained.
He said IDEM has authority to monitor the operation of the district, and if it's in violation IDEM can take enforcement action.
As for county commissioners, they can appoint and remove members of the sewer district board.
However, Carroll County has only one appointee on the board, Wayne Garrison, and there was no representation when TLRSD came into Carroll County.
"For a long time we had no one on the board - it was formed without us," said Brown.
IDEM's limited role in addressing citizen concerns did little to assuage the frustration of those in attendance, as did Pigott's comment that TLRSD has followed the statute.
"The way they have approached this is less than satisfactory from what I have heard from citizens, but there hasn't been a violation of the state statute," Pigott said.
One question directed toward IDEM asked whether the district had the authority to downsize its territory.
Pigott responded that it may, but it can involve litigation and other costs especially if infrastructure is already present.
Dieter Hentschel, a resident of northern Carroll County suggested that IDEM was essentially saying there was no recourse.
He noted though that IDEM failed to take into consideration the point of discharge for the new treatment plant that will service Carroll County.
"There was initially no flow data on Rattlesnake Creek, so Lynne Newlon (IDEM regional water and sewer district coordinator) used data from a similar creek," said Hentschel.
"Now the creek is going to pick up solids (and effluent) and it's only about a foot deep most of the year."
Other residents voiced concern at how the board was appointed in the first place with little input from residents.
Art Anderson, a long-time TLRSD board member, said not just past commissioners but current commissioners also approved TLRSD coming into the county.
He presented a letter from current commissioners supporting the action.
"This is back in 2005. It says there is a strong need for the project. This is when we were making the decision to come in to your county," said Anderson. "You wonder why we made a decision to come into your county, it was because we were asked."
"You can't stop a horse in the middle of the stream, we've already spent money on it, and you can stop it if you buy us out."
Brown responded though, that commissioners were led to believe TLRSD was a done deal.
"That was a horrendous mistake. We were led to believe it was a done deal and the question was how much it was going to cost," Brown said. "We were told 'if you allow us to dump into Rattlesnake Creek it would significantly decrease costs to our people."
The idea then was to keep costs as low as possible.
"But looking back, this was the biggest mistake and I wish we had never done it," Brown said.
Ultimately no solution was reached over the controversy, but the struggle will continue according to comments following the nearly three-hour meeting.
Dave Wright, a resident of Tecumseh Bend below the dam, is concerned that TLRSD will not stop at the dam, but will continue down the Tippecanoe River.
"There is no limit to what they can do. My goal is to give people their rights. They do not have the right to make people hook up to a system they don't need," said Wright.
'We need to get the word out on the next meetings, I know there are more people who are concerned."
IDEM public information officer Amber Finkelstein said her organization sympathizes with the residents,
"But it has to be dealt with on the local level."
Pat Robertson, an organizer of those in opposition, plans to pursue a lawsuit.
"We're going to continue in our quest to stop TLRSD," Robertson said.
"We have all the paperwork in line for a lawsuit, and will proceed against Twin Lakes Regional Sewer District and IDEM."
She said Indiana Code 13-26 is too loosely written a law and TLRSD has taken advantage of it."
Brown said he would take time to consider what was said Tuesday.
"I just have to take a step back and look at it in my mind," Brown said.
"I don't know what the next step will be yet."