City Public Works Director Doug Devlin informed the Starkville Board of Aldermen Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency planned to impose monetary penalties on the city retroactively for sanitary sewer overflows in the public collection system over a five-year period.
The regulatory action now requires the city to more aggressively enforce its ordinance regarding the discharge of fats, oils and grease into the public sanitary sewer system to avoid future fines. The code pertaining to prohibited chemicals allowed in the collection system, Sec. 110-92, states that any waters or wastes containing grease, fats, was or oils in excess of 100 milligrams per liter that can solidify at temperatures between 32 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
EPA officials audited the city's sewer collection system on Jan. 29 and Jan. 30 accompanied by a representative of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.
Devlin said he did not know how much of a fine EPA would direct the city to pay. He and City Attorney Chris Latimer would speak with EPA officials next month via teleconference to discuss the penalties, he said. According to Devlin, the discharging of fats, oils and grease into the collection system is one of the primary causes of sanitary sewer overflows.
Over the next few years, EPA officials will audit all Mississippi municipalities who have treatment permits of 10 million gallons per day or higher, and Starkville was one of the first that was evaluated, according to Devlin.
"This news is going to result in a huge change in the way we do business as far as managing our collection system," Devlin informed the board Tuesday. "The old method was you looked at sewer overflows as going and taking care of them as a cost of doing business … With this regulation the city is fined for each month that a sanitary sewer overflow occurs. It's going to take a lot of work on the city's part and also it's going to take a lot of help from the public and from customers in regards to deposits of grease into the sanitary sewage system."
Devlin said the city had been transparent by notifying MDEQ and EPA officials of violations.
"As soon as we know of an overflow we report it like we're supposed to, but the bad news is those who didn't report them are going to pay less fines," he said.
On Wednesday Devlin said both he and the MDEQ official were "shocked" by the agency's intentions to impose the fines.
"When (MDEQ) does an enforcement action of some type, unless there is a criminal violation, their method is not to impose fines and penalties," Devlin said. "They do what is called an agreed order where you lay out a capital improvement plan to improve the issues, and we work together with them. If we correct the issues, there are no fines or penalties, but ultimately the federal government operates in a different manner than our state agency does."
According to an EPA guide for evaluating capacity, management, operation and maintenance programs of collection systems, a wastewater treatment plant operator should ensure that new and rehabilitated sewers and connections from businesses within a municipality are properly designed, constructed and tested before being put into service.
"This authority could take the form of design and performance specifications in a sewer use ordinance or other legal document such as a statute or series of contracts or joint powers agreements. The ordinance or legal document should contain, at a minimum, general prohibitions, adequate grease control requirements and measures, prohibitions on stormwater inflow, infiltration from laterals, and new construction standards," the guide states. "The grease control section of the document should contain the requirement to install grease traps at appropriate facilities (e.g., restaurants). Additionally, these facilities should be required to properly maintain the grease traps and pump them out on a regular basis. The document should also address periodic inspections of grease traps by collection system personnel and the ability to enforce (i.e., levy fines on persistent offenders)."
Devlin said updated building codes had mandated new establishments such as restaurants to install a grease interceptor that collected grease and prevented it from entering the sewer system.
"We don't want people to think Starkville drew attention to itself because of a bunch of violations," Devlin said. "Everybody in Mississippi with a 10-million-gallon-per-day permit is going to be audited over the next couple of years, and what surprised us is how (EPA is) going to go back retroactively and impose these penalties."
Between now and the teleconference, Devlin said public works officials were gaining a full understanding of the EPA laws.
"When we talk to (the EPA) we want to definitely try to work with them and try to minimize the impact of the penalties in any way possible," he said.