October 19, 2013 10:31:17 PM
A "handful" of sanitary sewage overflows may turn out to be a "big deal" for Columbus Light & Water.
The Environmental Protection Agency has sent the utility provider a notice mandating a report of CL&W's operating procedures for its wastewater division and each incident of sewer overflow. CL&W general manager Todd Gale said the notice is the beginning of what will likely be a drawn-out legal process that may result in fines, despite only 17 incidents since 2008.
The utility provider's board of trustees was informed of the EPA's inquiry during its meeting Thursday by its attorney, Jeff Smith. It unanimously approved a motion to engage an engineer and legal firm for the process. Smith said once the board received the letter it enlisted the services of its engineering firm, Neel-Schaffer, whose experts have been working "non-stop" on ensuring everything the federal agency is asking for is in order before CL&W formally files a response. The motion also brings on board Balch & Bingham, which Smith said was the premier legal firm in the South for environmental matters. Two of the firms attorneys were formerly EPA attorneys, he added.
"A lot of this has to do with spills," Smith said. "In the last five years we've had a handful and we were told on the telephone today that a lot of cities have anywhere between 2,300 and 20,000 over the same period of time."
Smith also said the utility provider plans to file a 30-day extension request to the EPA before it responds.
"We probably don't need it but we're going to go ahead and file for the extension," he said. "It's going really well. The engineers do the majority of the work and then us lawyers put it in legalese and submit it."
Before informing the board that the process was going to be a "big deal," Gale said the EPA was bypassing the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency in place to monitor and regulate how municipalities and utility providers handle wastewater treatment and spills.
"You have to self-report when you have a spill to DEQ and (EPA is) looking at these self-reports and arbitrarily putting fines on them," Gale said. "We've been very pro-active. We're not going to send EPA just a little information. We're putting a book together on how pro-active we have been. Hopefully we can show them that we've been doing what we're supposed to do."
Smith said he was told through a conference call that some of the cities that have gotten the same letter from the EPA have actually fought not to release information and whatever they submitted was done so "very reluctantly."
"The way this works is they send you an inquiry and you collect information and send it back," Smith said. "You may have answered 99 percent of their questions with what you submit, but they may have a conference call or come in here and say there's two or three things we don't understand. We are already doing some of the things that EPA probably was going to require that we do. We're going to memorialize them in writing and get the board to adopt them. We've got a handful of policies we may come out of this with."
The Dispatch reported in February that the city of Starkville faced a similar situation with the EPA regarding retroactive fines for spills. An amount has not yet been announced.
Gale said several cities in Mississippi, including Jackson, Natchez and Hattiesburg, have also been retroactively punished for overflow incidents.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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