After more than four years of investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to hit Columbia with $1.5 million in fines and cleanup costs for spilling sewage into rivers from the citys aging wastewater treatment system.
The EPAs proposed sanctions, to be discussed Tuesday night by City Council, are designed to force repair of a sewer system that regularly leaks wastewater into once neglected rivers such as the Congaree and the Broad, which are increasingly popular with kayakers, canoeists and anglers.
Federal officials plan to assess $476,400 in fines against the city and require another $1 million to address flooding and cleanse parts of three major streams that flow into Columbias rivers: Rocky Branch, Gills Creek and Smith Branch, according to a proposed consent agreement posted on the citys website.
Most importantly, the EPA consent decree establishes a timeline on which to make improvements and assess further penalties if the city does not meet those target dates. While Columbia has had plans to make sewer system upgrades, the EPA order would leave the city less discretion on when to make repairs.
Thats what really gives this teeth, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said of the EPA consent decree. This lays out what has to be done and when it has to be done.
With every incremental decrease in sewer spills and improvements to the wastewater plant, its an important improvement for water quality in our rivers.
In the next 18 months to two years, the city must come up with an array of plans to address sewer system problems, then begin work to make repairs and improvements, according to the EPA consent order.
The EPA is taking action because it says Columbia has violated and continues to violate the federal Clean Water Act, established some 40 years ago to protect and clean up polluted waterways.
The agencys consent decree also says the city has violated its wastewater discharge permit, as well as the S.C. Pollution Control Act. The decree says Columbia has reported numerous sewer overflows and other violations in the past five years.
An attempt to reach EPA officials was unsuccessful Monday, but city officials were generally upbeat, despite the EPAs enforcement action. Columbia has struggled for years to maintain its sewer system and has had increasing difficulty because the system is so old. The city has drawn fire for diverting millions of dollars from its water and sewer fund for non-water-and-sewer projects.
Officials said they are working on improvements.
The city has been diligently working to reduce the number of sanitary sewer overflows, Columbia public awareness coordinator Victoria Kramer said, noting that the citys efforts have led to an average annual drop of 26 percent in sewer overflows since 2008.
Columbia officials have in recent years committed to spend about $500 million upgrading the water and system. And City Council is now discussing spending another $500 million, which is to be funded in part by rising water and sewer rates. Last year, council approved and then eased rate hikes that caused an uproar among its larger customers. The rates were based on the need to generate $100 million yearly to meet the EPAs requirements and to accommodate a growing population.
Columbias wastewater system is one of the largest in South Carolina. Its treatment plant has capacity to discharge 60 million gallons per day, while its sewer collection system has about 1,100 miles of piping. City officials say theyve already made significant investments in upgrading the sewer system, including a $40 million improvement to the treatment plant.
The federal order is not final because the city must still sign off on it. Council will discuss approving an ordinance Tuesday that authorizes execution of the consent decree. Consent decrees typically are negotiated settlements between the EPA and those it accuses of violating federal pollution laws.
With the EPA sanctions, Columbia becomes the latest city in the country to face penalties and cleanup requirements over unpermitted sewer discharges and leaks. Last year, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss., were fined and required to conduct environmental restoration projects. Other cities that have faced sanctions include Mobile, Ala.; Atlanta; Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn; and New Orleans. Columbias fines appeared Monday to be in line with several of the cities already sanctioned by the EPA.
The EPA put the spotlight on Columbias problems in 2008, when agency enforcement officers raided the sewage plant as part of a criminal probe of possible falsified records. The criminal case never went anywhere, but the EPA did find a crumbling sewage system that needed attention. Since then, the EPA has been pursuing a civil case against the city.
In the past 20 years, state regulators have fined Columbia more than $100,000 for more than a dozen environmental violations at its water and wastewater treatment plants. The city also, at times, has been among the leaders in South Carolina in sewage spills. In one six-month stretch in 2010-2011, the city had 157 reported sewage spills, emptying nearly 1 million gallons into creeks, rivers and on the ground.
More recently, Stangler said a quarter of a million gallons of sewage ran unchecked for several days on Bluff Road after a system overflow. His organization, which looks out for water quality in the Congaree, Broad and lower Saluda rivers, issued a statement late Monday expressing optimism about the consent accord.
Congaree Riverkeeper is glad that after years of negotiations this consent decree is in its final stages, according to the statement. We feel the required system improvements, as well as the supplemental environmental projects, will help fix our broken infrastructure and improve water quality. Congaree Riverkeeper will monitor the citys progress and work to ensure that they comply with the terms of the consent decree.
Staff Writer Clif LeBlanc contributed to this story.