Editorial: EPA’s gag order on Columbia outrageous

11/25/2012 12:00 AM

11/23/2012 5:16 PM

THERE’S something foul — a stench much worse than that given off by wastewater itself — about the Environmental Protection Agency ordering Columbia officials to stop talking to The State about tens of millions of public dollars being spent to upgrade the city’s deteriorating sewer system.

City officials recently revealed that they have been warned by EPA officials that they must stop discussing plans for the system or face being found in violation of a confidentiality agreement Columbia signed with the agency and the U.S. Justice Department as part of an impending civil settlement over pollution infractions.

It is abusive to the very idea of open government for any governmental agency to muzzle another governmental entity regarding an issue that not only involves the public health and welfare but also affects ratepayers’ pocketbooks.

We can’t imagine why the EPA would require a level of secrecy that requires the City Council to talk behind closed doors about fee increases, spending and sewer system improvements — topics that normally wouldn’t even be allowed to be discussed in secret under S.C. open-government laws. There is absolutely no justification for this.

It’s bad enough — and frankly, we believe it should be illegal — for governmental bodies to enter into secret settlements with private concerns. We simply can’t fathom how public officials discussing a public service funded with public money could believe that they have the moral right to demand secrecy, even temporarily. What’s to hide?

Certainly, City Council would be worried about the city’s exposure to fines for wastewater infractions brought on by years of neglect, deteriorating sewer lines and other problems that violated environmental standards. But those concerns don’t justify silence. If anything, they heighten the need for transparency and public scrutiny.

The city is in the midst of spending tens of millions of dollars on upgrades. In addition, City Council is determining how it will resolve controversy surrounding water and sewer rate increases that went into effect July 1. Customers are particularly concerned that base rates increased as much as 28 times and apply even if customers don’t use any water. The problematic rates were implemented to generate $100 million annually for the next five years, with most of the revenue paying for the sewer-system upgrades.

Because of the EPA’s outrageous demand, city officials believe that rate changes that could affect the settlement might have to occur behind closed doors. The public may not know how many millions of dollars the city has spent and will spend on upgrades as a result of the sewer settlement until the process is final.

Columbia residents, ratepayers in particular, have a right to know and an overriding interest in knowing the details surrounding the city’s sewer troubles. After all, consumers are going to have to shoulder the burden for the improvements as well as any fine — reportedly as much as $1.5 million — assessed by the EPA and the Justice Department.

Federal officials should withdraw this unacceptable gag order and allow Columbia to let the sunshine — and more importantly, the public — in.

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