PORTLAND — The city is negotiating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to reduce fines totaling as much as $177,500 for violations of the Clean Water Act dating back to 2007.
Ruptures in sanitary sewage pipes, breakdowns in pumping stations and other problems allowed emissions of untreated sewage, violating the Clean Water Act.
“(The) EPA commenced the action against Portland because the City had not responded sufficiently to historic overflows,” said EPA Northern New England spokesman Dave Deegan in an email.
The City Council met in closed session Monday night to discuss the issue. Mayor Michael Brennan did not return a call for comment Tuesday.
City Manager Mark Rees said in a prepared statement that the city is seeking an “integrated approach” to complying with the four distinct aspects of the Clean Water Act in a way that is cost-effective.
“It is critical that the city pursue an approach that is both environmentally responsible as well as not overtly burdensome to local businesses and residents,” Rees said.
When sewer failures or blockages occur, raw sewage is discharged onto streets, into backyards or into the city’s stormwater system, which leads to nearby water bodies like Back Cove, the Fore River and Casco Bay.
The Clean Water Act allows municipalities, through special permits, to discharge sewage into water bodies during heavy rains — known as combined sewer overflows — if they have plans to reduce and eliminate the combined systems.
Unlike combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows are illegal under the Clean Water Act.
The EPA alleges that since September 2007, the city has discharged raw sewage into Back Cove, Portland Harbor, Nason’s Brook, Capisic Brook and other waterways on “at least 22 occasions.”
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection provided a list of 47 sanitary sewer overflows reported by the city.
According to the EPA complaint, dated Sept. 27, federal law allows for fines of as much as $11,000 per violation, per day, that occurred between March 15, 2004 and Jan. 12, 2009, and as much as $16,000 per daily violation that occurred after Jan. 12, 2009.
The EPA has agreed to cap any potential fines at $177,500 because the city has taken steps to fix its sewer and stormwater issues, said Danielle West-Chuhta, the acting city attorney.
“They chose the lower end of the scale in recognition of the city’s hard work,” West-Chuhta said.
Regarding the prospect of the fines being reduced further, she said, “We’re still negotiating.”
In a press release, the city cited the recent collapse of a brick sewer line on Clark Street as an example of a sanitary sewer overflow. Many of the city’s sewer lines date back to the Civil War, when they were made of brick or clay, and the city’s pump stations date back to the 1960s.
“On the sanitary overflow system, they have known for years Portland has a lot of really aging infrastructure,” said Joe Payne, a clean-water advocate with the Friends of Casco Bay. “While some minor amount (of work) has been done, it was — given the size of the problem — largely ignored. Now, we have examples of illegal sanitary sewer overflows and we have examples of Clark Street falling in.”
Mike Bobinsky, the city’s public works director, said the city has a regular cleaning program for the sewer mains. Crews often find obstructions such as roots, rags, rocks, rubber gloves and grease clogging the system.
According to the Maine DEP, a mechanical failure on June 2, 2008, discharged about 27,000 gallons of raw sewage into a small brook next to the Castine Road pump station.
In a separate case, Bobinsky said, a pump failure at the Riverton pump station discharged sewage into Back Cove for several hours before crews discovered the problem. The city has since invested $700,000 in an electronic monitoring system, he said.
The pending settlement serves as a “big Post-it note” that the city needs to address issues with its sewer and stormwater system sooner rather than later, Payne said.
“We have to pay for infrastructure now or it is going to cost a lot more later,” he said. “The combined sewer system was ignored for decades and the price now to fix the combined sewer system is huge.”
The city is poised in 2014 to begin spending $170 million over the next 15 years to address its remaining combined sewer outfalls. The city has already invested $100 million on similar projects over the last decade.
Bobinsky said the city is spending $700,000 to study the needed upgrades in the sewer system and a plan to address those needs.
That report could result in another expensive capital program, but Payne said the upgrades are sorely needed.
In its press release, the city highlighted the hundreds of millions of dollars spent in trying to update its systems to meet increasingly strict environmental mandates.
Ratepayers are bearing the burden of funding all but $3 million of the $280 million in planned or finished combined sewer overflow work.
The city has spent $1.5 million to maintain its Municipal Separate Storm Water Systems permit by cleaning catch basins, sweeping streets and doing public education.
The city said that, this year, the EPA adopted new restrictions on the amount of impervious surfaces — such as pavement, buildings and sidewalks — allowed in coastal communities.
“It’s unclear how the EPA will apply these new rules, yet it is expected that they will have a significant impact on Portland,” the release says.
Rees said in an interview that Clean Water Act requirements fall under four “silos” — combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, stormwater, and treatment plants.
Rees said the EPA, which is concentrating on sanitary sewer overflows nationwide, suggested working toward an integrated approach. Such an approach would enable the city to prioritize the improvements that would make the greatest impact.
“This is not unique to Portland,” Rees said. “This is a nationwide problem.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: