November 21, 2012

Portland seeks to resolve EPA fines, sewer overflows

The city faces a penalty of as much as $177,500 as well as millions of dollars for improvements to its aging system of sanitary sewage pipes.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

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.

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