Mobile Pay Penalties for Clean Water Act Violations
The Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Alabama announced a settlement with the Water and Sewer Board of the City of Mobile, AL, for violations of the Clean Water Act's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program.
Mobile Bay Watch, Inc., a local citizens' group, is also a party to this settlement.
The Board owns and operates three publicly-owned treatment works ("POTWs"), which discharge treated wastewater into Mobile Bay and its tributary, Three Mile Creek, as well as the transmission and collection systems that carry wastewater to the POTWs for treatment. Since 1993, the Board has experienced numerous unpermitted discharges from its transmission and collection systems, in addition to sporadic violations of the effluent limitations of its NPDES permits. The Clean Water Act specifically prohibits the discharge of any pollutants into the waters of the United States, except in those cases where the discharger has first acquired a NPDES discharge permit.
The three wastewater treatment plants in Mobile have a total design flow of 42.8 million gallons per day. Unpermitted discharge volumes of sanitary sewer overflows reaching waters of the U.S. for the years 1995-1999 range from 2.116 million gallons per year to 4.199 million gallons per year, with a five year average of approximately 3.053 million gallons per year.
"This case highlights the benefits of increased cooperation amongst parties, especially as it leads to expeditious improvements that will provide environmental benefits for citizens," said Tom Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
Typically, discharges of raw sewage contain a variety of pollutants, including pathogenic microorganisms, viruses, and chemical and floatable materials. Health risks associated with bacteria-laden water may result through skin contact with the discharges or through drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated shellfish. They range in severity from mild gastroenteritis to diseases that can be life threatening, such as infectious hepatitis and dysentery.
This is the first EPA case to resolve claims against a participant in the Agency's southeastern Region's Maintenance, Operation and Management Compliance (MOM) Program, which is intended to bring all southeastern region POTWs into compliance with the "proper operation and maintenance" provision of their NPDES permits by the year 2011. The program's purpose is to achieve prompt environmental improvements and regulatory compliance in a more cooperative setting than litigation.
"This case demonstrates the real environmental accomplishments we can achieve through the MOM Program," commented Jimmy Palmer, EPA Regional Administrator in Atlanta. "The cooperative tone of this action has allowed us to incorporate the interests of the federal and Alabama State governments, a leading local environmental group, and the Board, into a settlement that benefits the Mobile Bay ecosystem as well as its citizens. We hope that successful outcomes like this will encourage other muncipalities to work in MOM toward similar goals in their areas."
Under the MOM compliance program, EPA asks permitted wastewater utilities to perform a detailed audit of the management, operations and maintenance programs associated with their facilities. Participants provide a report that includes the audit results, any improvements that can be made, and a schedule for making those improvements.
Through the program, the Board conducted a self-audit in August 1999 and identified needed improvements to its wastewater transmission, collection and treatment systems. The settlement documents the Board's commitment to implement these and other changes.
"This settlement is a significant step forward for the Mobile Sewer Board, which has struggled with severe difficulties from sewage overflows and other problems with its sanitary sewer system," said Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor. "We have reached an agreement that provides comprehensive and innovative solutions to improve the environment for the citizens of Mobile."
Under the settlement, the Board will pay the United States a civil penalty of $99,000 and implement beneficial environmental projects valued at $2.5 million. The State of Alabama also will receive $15,000 in civil penalties. These SEPs will fund the purchase of environmentally valuable habitats in Mobile County and the Dog River watershed, as well as repair of private residential service laterals in low income areas and partial funding of a publicly available database of water quality monitoring in the Mobile Delta.