Sewage suits rile East Side towns

John Craig - Staff writer
The Spokesman-Review

Washington State - 4/5/04 - Several small Eastern Washington cities that have spent millions to upgrade their sewage systems are being sued by a Seattle environmental group that wants them to do more.

Cities being sued by Waste Action Project include Colville, population 4,965, where a treatment plant is under construction. The plant is expected to cost nearly $18 million when it is finished in 2007.

Another defendant, the Lincoln County town of Wilbur, population 880, has spent more than $2.6million since May 1995 on efforts to keep the municipal sewage lagoon from overflowing.

State Department of Ecology officials have been pressuring the communities to fix sewage problems, and say they are satisfied with the progress.

"They're working with us as quickly and completely as time and resources allow," said Jani Gilbert, Ecology's regional spokeswoman in Spokane.

Waste Action Project representatives say they think Colville, Wilbur and other communities -- including Quincy in the Columbia Basin and College Place, near Walla Walla -- can and should do more. And the environmentalists say state officials asked for their help.

"We have been encouraged by the Department of Ecology to pay some attention to these Eastern Washington communities," said Seattle attorney Richard Smith, a co-founder of Waste Action Project and one of its officers.

Smith suggested the request came from Ecology's Spokane office, but was unable to name an individual. Gilbert said any such contact with Smith's group would have been unauthorized.

"We aren't aware of anyone on our staff encouraging Smith's law firm to sue facilities in Eastern Washington," Gilbert said. "It's certainly not our policy to encourage lawsuits of any kind."

Biting his tongue on the advice of lawyers, Colville Mayor Dick Nichols called the lawsuit "very disappointing."

Wilbur Mayor Don Reid tried to restrain himself, but was less successful.

"We're at the peak of our indebtedness and we can't do any more," Reid said. "We have just barely met our budget and stayed in the black. So how does Waste Action Project figure to yank $27,500 a day, going back over 16 years? What's wrong with them?"

Reid was referring to the maximum penalty the environmental group called for under the federal Clean Water Act. The law also allows Waste Action to collect attorney fees if it proves violations that were reported by the defendants.

The cities are required to report violations to the Department of Ecology and the lawsuits are based on the defendants' own admissions.

Wilbur has rejected Waste Action Project's settlement overtures, Reid said.

"The purpose of their action is to put some money in their pocket, but they're trying to hide that," he said.

State Sen. Bob Morton, who got an earful about Waste Action Project at a luncheon meeting with Colville civic leaders, agrees with Reid's assessment.

"I think it is deplorable what the legal profession is doing in fostering this type of activity," said Morton, R-Orient. "My father was a lawyer and he would have been aghast. `Ambulance chasing,' they used to call it years ago."

Smith bristled at the suggestion that he has a conflict of interest as an officer and co-founder of an organization that files lawsuits in which defendants likely will have to pay his bill.

"I am a competent lawyer," Smith said. "I can make a hell of a lot of money doing other things than this. That is just ridiculous."

Waste Action's paid executive director, Greg Wingard, said he decides who to sue. The group typically presses for money that might have gone toward fines to be used instead for local environmental projects, Wingard said.

He said he understands that the economies of small Eastern Washington communities are much weaker than Seattle's. But, Wingard said, "Just because a community is poor doesn't mean it's OK for them to poison their water."

U.S. District Court records show Waste Action Project has filed about 35 lawsuits in Western Washington since 1995. Defendants have ranged from small towns to large counties, from a cabinet shop to Chevron.

In Central and Eastern Washington, the group has filed nine federal lawsuits, starting in 1998 with an unsuccessful effort to force Dawn Mining to get a discharge permit for contaminated water seeping from a uranium tailings pit at Ford, Wash.

In addition to the four small towns sued this year, Waste Action previously has sued Pasco, Sunnyside, Wenatchee and Klickitat County Public Utility District No. 1.

The group threatened to sue the state Department of Ecology over air-quality monitoring, but backed off, according to Ecology officials.

People who file lawsuits are required to have "standing," a personal stake in the issues they raise. Waste Action Project claims in each of its lawsuits to have "at least one member who was injured," but refuses to identify anyone.

"Our general practice is, we don't discuss who our members are," Smith said.

He acknowledged, though, that Waste Action Project's entire board of directors lives in the Seattle area, and a majority of its "several hundred" members are from Western Washington.

Smith said Waste Action Project is pleased that Colville is building a new sewage treatment plant, "and that is not something we want to get in the way of."

But, he said, the Colville sewage lagoons have a long history of violations, and his group doesn't trust the Department of Ecology to keep the treatment plant construction on schedule.

Waste Action Project's claim lists 181/2 pages of violations, dating from 1999, that were discovered through public disclosure requests.

The violations involve standards for treated effluent that is released into the Colville River about 10 miles upstream from Lake Roosevelt.

Public Works Director Harlan Elsasser said Colville's three-cell lagoon treatment system, built in 1967, sometimes still exceeds its capacity despite an $8 million project in the 1990s to keep storm water from entering sanitary sewers.

About one-third of the city's sewer lines were replaced because groundwater was infiltrating crumbling clay pipes and overloading the lagoons. Also, numerous catch basins and roof drains were disconnected from sanitary sewers.

Elsasser said workers are doing the best they can with the existing lagoons, and construction of the new treatment plant can't go any faster.

The new plant is scheduled to be in operation in summer 2007. By that time, residential sewer bills -- already $43.20 a month -- are expected to be around $50. That's up from $7.10 a month in 1994, before the city began correcting its sewage problems under orders from the Department of Ecology.

In comparison, residential rates are $24.07 a month in the city of Spokane, $24.50 in unincorporated Spokane County and $38.20 in Covington, the Seattle suburb where Waste Action leader Wingard lives.

Asked what he thinks Colville could do that it isn't already doing, Smith said he didn't know because "I haven't had my expert out there."

As for Wilbur, he said, "It would be nice if they would talk to us directly. They basically won't even talk to us, so I don't really know what their side of the story is."

What about the three-page letter Town Attorney Cynthia McMullen sent on Dec. 23? It detailed the work Wilbur has done and the costs it has incurred.

It said the town "can only proceed as far and as fast as funding allows," and ended with an invitation to call McMullen in Spokane.

"From their letter, I infer that they think that compliance with the Clean Water Act is optional," Smith said.

Wilbur began corrective action in 1995 by extending its sewer system to a part of town where marginally effective septic tanks posed a health hazard. The town also rehabilitated a sewage pumping station, installed lagoon aeration equipment and replaced broken sewer lines that allowed ground water to overwhelm the sewage system.

A $13.10-a-month charge was assigned to every building in town, occupied or not, to pay off loans that are due in 2018. Those who use the sewer system pay an additional $21.90 a month.

Town officials have paid down the loan and lowered the surcharge to $6 a month. They're seeking grants to help pay for an expansion of the municipal sewage lagoons that is supposed to be completed by December 2009.

The expansion would eliminate frequent overflows into Goose Creek, an intermittent stream about three-eighths of a mile from the lagoons.

Richard Koch, senior environmental engineer for the Department of Ecology in Spokane, said recent Goose Creek water-quality testing showed the municipal lagoons had only a "very minor" effect on the creek.

In the Grant County city of Quincy, about 27 miles northwest of Moses Lake, Waste Action Project is targeting a city-controlled sewage system that serves only two large food-processing plants.

City Attorney Allan Galbraith, of Wenatchee, contends the lawsuit is based on "transitory" problems with ammonia levels, which are being corrected.

"Things take time to fix," Galbraith said. "It's like trying to turn an aircraft carrier in a canal."

Anyway, he said, the complaint should be directed toward Earth Tech, an international corporation that operates the industrial sewage treatment plant under contract.

Waste Action Project got a warmer reception in College Place, three miles south of Walla Walla in southeastern Washington. The city of 8,165 completed a $20 million high-tech sewage treatment plant in 2001 and has had trouble getting it to work properly.

City Administrator Mike Patterson said the system employs an artificial wetland that wasn't designed for the area's high summer temperatures. He said city officials were "really upset" to have their problems compounded by a lawsuit, but moved quickly to meet with Waste Action representatives.

"When we met with them, we found they've got the same goals we have," Patterson said, noting the group provided some helpful advice.

Patterson said the city is willing to pay attorney fees estimated at $4,000, and hope for a quick settlement.



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