Prosecutor to Bethel Heights mayor: Fix sewage issues or be criminally charged

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BETHEL HEIGHTS, Ark. (KNWA) — The Benton County prosecutor is saying enough is enough in Bethel Heights.

Benton County Prosecutor Nathan Smith said he may seek criminal charges against town officials for violating the Water and Air Pollution Control Act.

Under Arkansas Code Annotated § 8-4-103, is it unlawful for a person to:
Purposely, knowingly, or recklessly cause pollution of the waters or air of the state in a manner not otherwise permitted by law and thereby create a substantial likelihood of adversely affecting human health, animal or plant life, or property.”

Residents have claimed extreme contaminated conditions allegedly caused by one of the wastewater treatment plants in town, but representatives of the town, including the mayor, said those claims aren’t true.

However, Smith stated in a letter addressed to Bethel Heights mayor Cynthia Black Thursday, Aug. 1, that the sewage system in the town violates state law.

“It’s my belief that a criminal case could be brought if nothing else is done. So, hopefully today is a step to encourage the effective resolution to this problem, and just to know that this is being worked out and there are concrete achievable steps to be taken to relieve this situation,” Smith said. “The point here of this letter is to ensure citizens who have a legitimate complaint that their rights have been violated…get a fair outcome and effective resolution of their concerns.”

Violation of this law is punishable of up to five years in prison and up to a $50,000 fine.

“Failure to comply with the requirements of the law will result in this office pursuing criminal charges against any city officials responsible for the violation of the Water and Air Pollution Control Act.”

Nathan Smith, Benton County Prosecuting Attorney

Smith told Black and other city officials that they have 30 days to cleanup wastewater on residential properties. Fecal coliform levels must be lowered within 90 days or he will pursue criminal charges against them.

For months, officials with the ADEQ have notified Black about the improper sewage system in town, which has led to run off being dumped onto residential properties.

“I’m tickled that they’re finally doing something about the process,” says neighbor Kevin Bowen, after reading the letter. Jason Steele, who also lives nearby the treatment plant, added, “I think it’s about time.”

Mayor Black was informed July 25 that the contaminated runoff could reach the Illinois River.

Four days later, Black told residents that all claims are “false accusations”.

In a letter that was signed by the mayor, all council members and other city officials and sent to residents, it’s stated:

Our City denies all claims of the dumping/flooding of raw sewer to any residents’ property or ponds. The Wastewater treatment plant located on Lincoln Street has been in operation for 15 years. The plant has been inspected numerous times by the Arkansas Department of Environment Quality, ADEQ, and the Arkansas Department of Health, ADH.

Black told residents accusations were false after being informed by the ADEQ that water samples violated Arkansas statutes.

Richard Healey, the enforcement branch manager of Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality addressed Black in a letter July 16, and told her about the water samples violating the law.

Those with the ADEQ advised Black that weekly samples for fecal bacteria and E.coli must be submitted weekly.

In response to a letter sent from the ADEQ July 24, Black submitted interim and operation plans to the agency.

Residents have petitioned the closing of the plant.

KNWA requested a comment by Mayor Black regarding Smith’s letter (Aug. 1). She was in the office but unavailable, and referred all questions to the city attorney with Hall Estill law firm.

“The people of Bethel Heights elected them to represent the best interests of the community. For them to refuse to engage in any conversation, I don’t see they are representing the best interest of anyone,” says neighbor Jennifer Steele.

Residents say flyers were also recently mailed out, encouraging people to drive by the property.

Bowen says he didn’t received a copy, but their daughter-in-law and son did.

“They’re trying to provoke us that we’re lying and we’re not. They’re taking words that we’ve said, and twisted those words,” Bowen said.

Some residents say sewage problems in Bethel Heights have been an issue for year.

“This has been going on for ten plus years, and we get no response — just dig a little hole here and there,” says neighbor Joetta Bowen.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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