Jerry Stewart, Chattanooga's director of waste resources, said he was doing a countdown of his 11-month, 29-day sentence for water pollution to make light of being the only city official in the state held liable for a lightning-caused sewage spill.
"I had to make light of it, but it could have had serious ramifications," Stewart said Friday of his suspended sentence and probation, which hinged on there being no further spills for the duration of the sentence.
Now the countdown can stop.
On Friday, in an agreement between state and city officials, Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Bob Moon removed Stewart from the case and cleared his record.
Chattanooga still is held responsible for the spill and must pay the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency $788 in restitution for fish killed in the spill, as well as the $2,500 fine levied against Stewart.
"I feel a lot better now," Stewart said.
The Aug. 6 spill happened when a lightning-caused power outage idled a pump that carries sewage to the Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant. More than 100,000 gallons of raw sewage flowed into the bay beside the Browns Ferry Marina on the Tennessee River. The spill killed 3,600 fish and forced live-aboard residents at the marina from their floating homes.
Moon and City Attorney Mike McMahan said the case will change the way TWRA cites corporations — at least in the Chattanooga area. Now those cases will be aimed at the corporate entities, in care of an individual.
"I had expressed my concern about holding Mr. Stewart responsible last week," Moon said of the initial court finding.
But the judge said the parties all assured him it was the plea agreement they had worked out.
He said he was relieved when the motion was filed Friday morning asking him to set aside Stewart's conditional guilty plea.
"TWRA also conceded that they shouldn't have cited him," Moon said.
McMahan said the case was just mishandled on all sides, but now is fixed.
"This put a big scare in [sewer] folks all around the state of Tennessee, and as a result of this in the future it will be set up so the sewer operator is charged as a representative of the corporate entity," he said.
Sheryl Holtam, general counsel for TWRA, said the agency never expected Stewart to be part of the plea, and the TWRA officer was "shocked" when he was sentenced.
"This is the way we've always handled cases," she said. "I don't know this will change things yet. I'll have to look into that."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...