February 20, 2013 10:04:51 AM
Carl Smith - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- The city of Starkville faces retroactive fines due to past overflow incidents involving its sanitary sewage system, public works director Doug Devlin reported to the board of aldermen Tuesday.
Devlin did not have a fine estimate for aldermen but did say a scheduled March conference call between city officials, legal counsel and federal Environmental Protection Agency regulators in Atlanta could shed light on the penalties associated with the Clean Water Act.
About three weeks ago, Devlin told the board, federal EPA regulators came to the state and audited numerous municipalities that operate water treatment plants which treat 10 million gallons of water or more per day. During a post-audit meeting between Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, EPA and city officials, Devlin said he learned Starkville would be retroactively penalized for a number of self-reported overflow incidents from the past five years.
Overflows, he explained, occur when the city's sanitary sewer systems rushes out of below-ground pipes to the surface through manholes.
"Typically when the state comes in a municipality and sees these kinds of things, they'll do an agreed order ... (in which the city) works with DEQ and lays out an improvement plan over several years that (it) can afford. As long as you meet their guidelines, there are no fines or penalties," Devlin said to the board Tuesday. "This came as a total shock.
"With this regulation, if the city experiences an overflow in any one month, the EPA could propose a fine," he added.
The federal audit did not target Starkville specifically, Devlin said, but other municipalities could pay fewer fines depending on how they reported their own overflow incidents.
"We're transparent - we report (overflows) to DEQ like we're supposed to," he said. "The bad news is those who didn't report them will pay less in fines and penalties."
Devlin pointed to two primary causes for overflow incidents: pipe obstructions and the improper disposal of grease, fats and oils into the city's infrastructure. The city is currently ramping up enforcement of its grease disposal ordinance, he said.
Four local businesses were issued notices for violating the ordinance in the past six to eight weeks, Devlin told the board. He also acknowledged the political sensitivity around the entire issue and warned aldermen they may receive calls from the public regarding the ordinance.
"What I tell them is we can't do business like we used to in the city of Starkville. We either enforce these (ordinances) or pay the fines," he said. "This will be happening more and more. It's going to take a lot of work on the city's part and a lot of help from the public - our customers - in regard to deposits of grease into the sanitary sewer system."
The board took Devlin's report under advisement and took no action on the matter.
"Mr. Devlin will work diligently to ensure all necessary steps are made to continue to improve the functioning of our waste water collection system," Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said following the meeting.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch