July 11, 2014 10:35:22 AM
Columbus Light and Water will not face financial penalties stemming from an inquiry by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding sanitary sewage overflows.
CL&W General Manager Todd Gale informed the utility provider's board of directors last October that fines were a possibility due to 17 overflows the utility company self-reported from 2008 to September 2013, overflows that involved a total of 9,235,000 gallons of untreated sewage. At the time, Gale said the EPA was bypassing the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency in place to monitor wastewater treatment, and "arbitrarily putting fines" on municipal utility providers for overflows.
The EPA conducted a compliance evaluation and inspection of the city's sewer system and wastewater treatment plant in April.
While EPA opted not to fine CL&W, it will monitor the city's progress in developing and implementing management, operations and maintenance procedures and rehabilitation of the sewer system over the next two years.
Gale said EPA will provide CL&W more written recommendations, which the utility provider will use to finalize its master plan regarding its sewer system going forward.
Being proactive once EPA's request was received was key in mitigating the penalties CL&W might have faced. Upon learning about the request, the board engaged an engineer and legal firm to assist in gathering information EPA sought. All overflows were corrected at the onset of each incident, Gale said.
"It's just following best management practices," Gale said. "Over the course of the last eight to 10 years, the utility has always been good, if there is a spill, to go out and do whatever we can to correct it immediately. That's what they want to see, but they also want to see that you're being proactive as far as reinvesting in your system, by updating it and keeping it current."
EPA sent a similar inquiry to the city of Starkville asking for overflow reports in 2012. More than 145 overflow incidents were reported in Starkville between August 2008 and November 2012, according to an EPA consent agreement with the city. The agreement, reached last October, required the city to pay $70,800 in civil penalties and take steps to rehabilitate its sewer system. EPA is also monitoring the city's practices for three years.
Starkville Public Works Director Doug Devlin said the city is complying with all of EPA's requirements.
"These are things that we need to do and we're going to have a much more reliable system when we get done with it," Devlin said.
Other municipalities, including the city of Jackson, were not as quick to respond to the EPA's inquiries, CL&W attorney Jeff Smith said. In November 2012, the city of Jackson was fined $437,916 after being found in violation of the Clean Water Act and ordered to make upgrades to its sewer system.
Jackson's handling of the situation proved to be a cautionary tale for other cities.
"We came up with a plan, and it said we've got policies in place to do with that," Smith said. "EPA bought it and said they can't see anything we can do any better. These people were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and at the end of the day, they were still having to do what EPA said. From what I have gathered from other city attorneys and utility attorneys, everybody that has fought has lost."
Gale said the low number of overflows compared to peer cities raised EPA's eyebrows at first.
"That kind of piqued EPA's interest, but once they got here they understood why the numbers were low," Gale said. "They compared us to other systems they've seen that are well operated and well-maintained systems."
The city of Vicksburg settled with EPA in July 2013 after the federal agency requested overflow reports and paid a $17,000 fine after self-reporting 17 overflows between September 2007 and May 2012.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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