The Department of Justice, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nebraska and the Attorney General for the State of Nebraska today announced a Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act settlement with the city of McCook, Nebraska. The settlement was filed in the federal court in Omaha, Nebraska simultaneously with a complaint alleging violations of both acts.
Under the terms of the agreement, memorialized as a consent decree, McCook agreed to make improvements to its drinking water system to ensure compliance with maximum contaminant limits for nitrates, uranium and arsenic prescribed by EPA and the State of Nebraska. McCook also will be required to upgrade its sewage treatment system to ensure that its ammonia discharges to the Republican River do not exceed limits set forth in the city’s permit issued by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) pursuant to state and federal law. In addition, McCook agreed to pay a total civil penalty of $225,000, comprised of penalties of $136,000 for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and $89,000 for violations of the Clean Water Act. The United States and the State of Nebraska will each receive a portion of the penalties. The estimated cost of the improvements to the city’s drinking water system and sewage treatment plant is in the neighborhood of $12.75 million.
"This enforcement case demonstrates the Department’s commitment to protecting public health in our communities as well as the quality of our environment," said Tom Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. "This settlement protects particularly vulnerable members of the population, children, and pregnant women."
"By working closely with other agencies on this case, EPA is protecting and enhancing the health of people who are more susceptible to environmental contaminants," said Jim Gulliford, EPA Region 7 administrator. "The very productive collaboration with our state partners is helping us fulfill our mission of sensitive population protection, which is one of Region 7's three strategic priorities."
The City of McCook is located in the southwestern portion of Nebraska in Red Willow County, approximately 60 miles south of North Platte and 14 miles from the Kansas border. McCook lies along the Republican River, which flows from Colorado along much of the southern border of Nebraska, turns southward, and eventually joins the Kansas River. McCook has a population of approximately 8,000 people.
The complaint alleges that McCook has violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in that levels of nitrates and uranium in the public water supply exceed the maximum contaminant levels established under state and federal law. In addition, unless corrective measures are taken, the arsenic levels in the city’s source of drinking water would likely exceed the maximum contaminant level for arsenic that becomes effective in Nebraska in 2006.
Excessive levels of nitrates in drinking water can interfere with infants’ ability to absorb oxygen into the bloodstream, thereby heightening the risk of methemoglobinemia, a rare but sometimes fatal condition also known as blue baby syndrome. Nitrates might also increase the risk of miscarriages. Excessive uranium in drinking water can result in toxic effects to the kidneys, and with long exposure, may increase cancer risk. Studies have linked long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate. Non-cancer effects of ingesting arsenic include cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, and endocrine (e.g., diabetes) effects. Because of heightened risk to vulnerable segments of the population, the City will be required to continue providing bottled water for households with children and pregnant women until new treatment to remove nitrate is installed and working.
The complaint also alleges that for five or more years, McCook has violated the Clean Water Act in that it has failed to comply with the summer seasonal ammonia concentration and mass limitations contained in its NPDES permit for the city’s Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW). The POTW discharges water into the Republican River, which is on the Nebraska list of impaired waters. Ammonia can be toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates.
The State of Nebraska, on behalf of the NDEQ and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Regulation and Licensure (HHSR&L), has joined in this action and alleges that the city has violated the Nebraska Environmental Protection Act, has failed to comply with the limitations and conditions of its NPDES permit, failed to comply with requirements for operation of its PWS, and has failed to comply with administrative orders issued by both NDEQ and HHSR&L requiring the city to comply with its NPDES permit and provide drinking water to its service population in compliance with PWS requirements.