(CN) - The city of Waterloo, Iowa will perform a comprehensive assessment of its sanitary sewer system and develop a master plan to address its weaknesses, to settle alleged Clean Water Act violations, federal regulators announced.
The proposed settlement, filed on Monday in the Cedar Rapids Federal Court, requires the city to assess the capacity and condition of its wastewater treatment facility as well as nearly 400 miles of sanitary sewer lines and 300 miles of storm drains and lines.
The agreement was announced the same day the Environmental Protection Agency said it reached a separate settlement with Iowa-based Barton Solvents, which has agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle claims related to its six plants in Iowa, Kansas and Wisconsin.
In the Waterloo case, federal regulators said the city's treatment plant serves about 70,000 resident and 20 significant industries, and when wastewater flow exceeds the treatment plant's capacity, untreated water can end up in the Cedar River.
The agency says that Waterloo has discharged pollutants, including raw sewage, into the Cedar River at least 319 times between April of 2008 and August of 2015, and that raw sewage has backed up into public and private property, including homes and buildings, at least 500 times in the same timeframe.
A complaint filed at the same time as the consent decree alleges that "raw sewage can carry bacteria, viruses, parasitic organisms, intestinal worms, and inhaled molds and fungi." It adds that, "The diseases that can be caused by these contaminants range in severity from mild gastroenteritis (causing stomach cramps and diarrhea) to life-threatening ailments such as cholera, dysentery, infectious hepatitis, and severe gastroenteritis."
It has also exceeded its permitted output of nitrogen, ammonia, and pH levels 24 times, regulators say.
Under the terms of the proposed consent decree, the city is required to submit a master plan to the EPA and the state of Iowa by Dec. 31, 2017, laying out the measures it plans to take to address the system's capacity, inflow and infiltration problems, and eliminate all potential sewer outflows and bypasses.
Once the master plan is approved by federal and state regulators, the city will have until Dec. 31, 2032 to complete all of its fixes.
As part the settlement, Waterloo has also agreed to pay $272,000, and implement a sewer overflow response plan.
John Hall, special counsel for the City of Waterloo, said, "Even without the federal order, the city was moving forward on a number of systems improvements, which are having a lot of benefits."
"The order makes them move a little bit faster and get some things done," he said.
Hall said he's hopeful the city "will have everything of concern wrapped up within a five-year period."
According to Hall, who works with cities throughout the country on water compliance issues, tight budgets often contribute to wastewater systems falling into disrepair.
"You've got a lot of existing infrastructure to maintain," he said. "There used to be enough federal dollars for improvement, but there's not anymore. There are loans that have to get paid back. Maintaining the existing structure seems to be the biggest issue -it's not always obvious what the condition is of something that is underground, and it can end up being 'out of sight, out of mind.' At the same time, you have the EPA creating new mandates and more expensive requirements. People often have to make decisions about where they are going to spend the money. How do you fund the new requirements, versus maintaining the existing infrastructure? There is only so much money to go around."
He estimated the repairs will cost the city between $30 million and $50 million.
Barton Solvents came under scrutiny following a 2007 explosion and fire at the company's former plant in Valley City, Kansas.
The July 17, 2007 event led to evacuation of 6,000 residents. Twelve people, including a firefighter, were treated for injuries.
After an investigation, the EPA alleged the company had failed to identify on-site hazards, and didn't timely notify state regulators of a release of chemicals, and did not properly identify or manage certain wastes.
Barton Solvents did not admit any liability by entering into the consent decree, but has agreed to an independent third party audit to clarify its compliance obligations.
Dave Casten, the company's president has said Barton Solvents does not agree with all of the EPA's conclusions, but has made several improvements and is fully cooperating with the agency.
Waterloo is not alone in its wastewater woes. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave United States wastewater infrastructure a "D" on its 2013 report card, claiming the nation will spend $298 billion updating in the next 20 years.
Aging pipes and inadequate capacity led to the discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage per year, the ASCE says. As a result, since 2007 the federal government has required municipalities to spend $15 billion on "new pipes, plants, and equipment to eliminate combined sewer overflows."
Repairs are especially pressing in places like California, which could be losing 10 percent of its water supply through leaky pipes in the midst of its worst drought in history, according to a San Jose Mercury News article from earlier this month. And cities like Washington D.C. are still using water pipes that were installed before the Civil War, according to the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority.
"Iowans want clean rivers, streams and lakes," Josh Mandelbaum, staff attorney for the Des Moines branch of the Environmental Policy & Action Center, told Courthouse News. "Effective enforcement of the Clean Water Act helps provide the clean water that Iowans expect and deserve, which includes limiting nutrient pollution. We commend the EPA and the State of Iowa for taking steps to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect our waters."
The EPA did not respond to requests for comment.
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