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Platte City facing fine from EPA

by Ivan Foley
Landmark editor

A break in an older sewer line near the Platte River has the City of Platte City facing a fine from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after sanitary sewage leaked into a creek that flows into the river.

EPA officials say the leak violated the federal Clean Water Act, which prohibits the discharge of "pollutants" into a "navigable water."

The EPA last week issued a public notice of the complaint, which included the announcement that it is proposing a fine of $60,000.

The notice says members of the public may submit comments on the matter by contacting Kathy Robinson, regional hearing clerk, at 913-551-7567.

City Administrator Keith Moody says the break in the sewer line was discovered in January at a creek north of Hwy. 92, west of Casey's and east of the Platte River. He said the leakage into the creek was noticed by a trapper, who reported it to the EPA. The EPA then appeared in Platte City to view the site before reporting its findings to city officials.

Moody said the line initially ran under the creek, which the EPA labels an "unnamed tributary." Over the years the creek has become deeper and wider, and the sanitary sewer line became exposed and eventually separated, resulting in the leakage into the water.

Moody said the city replaced an entire section of line between two existing manholes with a special ductile iron pipe, which is extremely rigid. The new pipe contains a locking mechanism to help prevent separation.

He said the new pipe remains exposed where it crosses the creek, but that the city has built concrete pillars at the point where the line crosses.

"We couldn't have responded any quicker or in any better administered fashion than we did. We had the immediate problem resolved within four hours of their visit by doing bypass pumping," Moody explained.

Though EPA officials have proposed a fine of $60,000, the city is taking steps in an attempt to get the fine reduced.

"We're pursuing every avenue available to us that they've let us know about to reduce the penalty," Moody said.

He said city officials had taken part in an informal meeting with EPA representatives and proposed future projects to help prevent further occurrences. Some of those projects include cleaning the sanitary sewer line along the Platte River, video taping the line to assess its condition, and placing lockdown lids on manholes on that section of the sanitary sewer line.
"They said all of these look like good projects, and said they may have some others that they may recommend. They were very positive in our response to the break," Moody said.

The city is also completing what the EPA calls an "ability to pay" questionnaire, which may also help get the fine reduced by basically indicating the amount of the fine would be a financial hardship to the city.
The EPA has told the city it can't eliminate the penalty entirely, and that the maximum amount for a reduction would be 40%. The maximum reduction would lower the fine to $36,000.

"That's what we're shooting for," Moody said.
He said money used to pay the eventual fine will come out of sewer utility reserve funds.
It's unsure how long the broken line had allowed sanitary sewage to leak into the creek.
"Because it's not an area that we get into and out of frequently, it's difficult to say how long it had been going on," Moody remarked.

He said the line was likely part of the original sewer system for the city, and he guessed it had been in place since 1920 or 1930.

The city previously cleaned and video taped that section of line in 1998 or 1999, Moody said, and no signs of disrepair were visible at that time.

He said he wasn't sure how EPA determined the amount of the proposed $60,000 fine.
"They have an equation, but they don't tell you what that equation is," he said.
Moody said the city has never been penalized for other circumstances like this one, which may have occurred on a smaller scale. He said the city has had discharges at pump stations, and had a previous situation where a creek washed out a line in another part of town. In those instances the problems were noticed quickly and the city self-reported the problems to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which he said is the appropriate agency to report that type of problem.
In this case, Moody said the city is filing all the necessary information it can use in an attempt to get the fine reduced.

"Hopefully we'll hear back from them (the EPA) in a couple of weeks or so," he said.
Phone calls from The Landmark to the EPA in regard to this story were referred to Jenna Wischmeyer, with the Office of the Regional Counsel for the EPA in Kansas City, Kan. Wischmeyer did not return a phone call last week and her voice mail this week indicated she will be out of the office until Friday, June 21.