(CN) - A Virginia sanitation department owes penalties because its aging pipes discharged 146,000 gallons of sewage during a large storm, a federal judge ruled.
After 2.6 to 3.7 inches of rain poured down on the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area in a 24-hour period during March 2010, the sewer system overflowed and discharged more than 146,000 gallons of sewage across the region.
The Hampton Roads Sanitation Department (HRSD) operates the sewer conveyance system and 13 wastewater treatment plants in this area. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Virginia asked the court to impose penalties on HRSD, pursuant to a 2006 consent order, for 10 separate sewer system discharges (SSDs) that illegally discharged pollutants into Virginia waters.
U.S. District Judge Arenda Allen quoted Mother Goose in ordering the penalties last week. "It's raining, it's pouring," she wrote. "This phrase, the start of an old nursery rhyme describing a rainstorm and the consequences of unfortunate injury, is an appropriate introduction to this work."
Allen rejected the department's claims that it could not prepare for and prevent the 2010 overflow because the storm overwhelmed the system with "an unforeseeable combination of tidal conditions, groundwater levels, wastewater, and heavy rainfall."
"The court concludes that HRSD has failed to demonstrate by the preponderance of evidence that the six storm-related SSDs were caused by an event beyond its control," she wrote.
In 2006, the department learned that 41 percent of its pump stations were "beyond the end of useful life," meaning that they were over 50 years old, according to the court.
"This suggests that HRSD knew about the potential risks inherent in maintaining a system beyond its useful and intended design life," Allen wrote.
"Defendant's argument that the equipment failure was beyond its control is based upon unsupported speculation," she added. "It is in within HRSD's control to maintain and upgrade its infrastructure to ensure compliance with the federal and state laws. Excusing HRSD for this equipment-related SSD despite its knowledge of its eroding system, and its apparent practice of 'wait and see' maintenance protocol, would be violative of the letter and spirit of the parties' consent decree."
The parties will confer to ensure that the department pays the stipulated penalties for the discharges pursuant to the terms of the consent decree.
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