DEQ fines city for 125 violations

Benny Westcott

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality recently issued a $22,445 civil penalty to the city of Sweet Home for more than 125 violations of Oregon water-quality protection law.

In a Jan. 19 letter, the DEQ cited the city for failing to meet pollutant limits and conduct wastewater monitoring required by its wastewater permit, and for violating state law by discharging raw sewage and non-disinfected wastewater to Ames Creek.

“To protect public health and the environment, DEQ recommends that Sweet Home immediately initiate an evaluation to determine the cause of these violations and take the action necessary to prevent future violations,” the notice read.

The city said in a Facebook post that it has been working on the design process for an upgraded Mahler Water Reclamation Facility (MWRF). The current plant was constructed in 1947 and last underwent a major upgrade in 1974. In 2001, the City of Sweet Home reached an agreement with the Oregon DEQ to address ongoing wastewater system overflows and discharge violations primarily caused by inflow and infiltration in the collection system, which is water that enters the sewer system through deteriorating pipes and cross-connections with storm drainage. (In August 2022, the plant experienced unusually high flow levels, followed by die-offs of biological life in its aeration basin, on a pair of Tuesdays two weeks apart.)

“The current plant has experienced periodic mechanical failures due to age,” it read. “These failures have led the DEQ to issue the city a Notice of Civil Penalties for exceedances of our permit limitations, which span over the last several years.”

Sweet Home Public Works Director Greg Springman also cited mechanical failures and the plant being old as reasons for the violations, referencing capacity issues.

“It’s mechanical,” he said. “You can’t put 10 pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack. And when you have mechanical devices that are old, they fail. And they fail periodically.”

He noted that when the plant was last upgraded in 1974, Sweet Home’s population was about 3,500 people. Now, the population is over 10,000.

“We need a bigger plant,” Springman said. “We need more updated equipment. And that’s what we’re doing.”

The fine didn’t come as a surprise to the director.

“We report all those violations to DEQ, so we know when they occur,” he said. “We’ve been working with DEQ, so we knew in advance that something was coming. But we didn’t know what amount or any of those things.”

Springman said that during his tenure (he has been director since 2017) the city has been fined a couple of times before by DEQ for the same reasons, but the fines weren’t as large as this one. He called the $22,445 fine “an escalation in enforcement.”

“I think DEQ is being very fair with us,” he noted. “I mean, there were 125 violations over several years. Based on the dollar amount, that’s about $179 a fine. That’s pretty small compared to some fines I’ve seen in the past, in general in the industry. Ultimately they want us to build a new plant, and we’re marching towards that.”

The city Facebook post said that “Over the last several years the city has been aggressively designing and seeking funding for the upgrade of our new wastewater treatment plant. Our design will be complete by June 30, 2023. A Sludge Tank Construction Project is currently breaking ground and should be completed by mid-summer.”

The post stated that the sludge tank project should remedy the DEQ’s issues until the upgraded plant is completed.

“This particular fine is from a report that came out this summer,” Sweet Home City Manager Kelcey Young said. “It wasn’t raw sewage. We do reports on it all the time. This was an overflow. We had a very, very high amount of water that came through. Because of that a little bit ended up getting washed out. It’s not sewage, it’s just the rates that we track daily were a little bit higher.”

The city’s Facebook post said that the plant failures “are in no way a result of new construction or development in Sweet Home. … [T]his has no impact on your clean water for the city of Sweet Home.” The city’s freshwater intake is taken from Foster Lake, and the wastewater plant discharges are downstream from the water intake point.

Young noted that the upgraded wastewater treatment plant will cost $60 million. The city has already received $7 million from the state that is going toward design and preliminary work, and has a $30 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture that has already been approved.

She said the city has asked for additional grants from DEQ, state senator partners and the federal government.

“We are not leaving a single stone unturned,” she said. “We are applying for every grant. We have been applying like crazy. We are working really hard on trying to get that funding.”

She added that “This is a topic that we work on and talk about every single day. Our public works crew and everybody are doing everything they can to keep (Sweet Home) safe and clean, because we cherish this area and this community.”

She hinted that water rate increases for city residents might take place in the future. “It is very likely with inflation and everything that we may need to raise the water rate a little bit,” she said. “But one of the things we’re working on the most is trying to get as much funding from outside as we can so that rate increase can be as low as possible.”

The civil penalty against Sweet Home was one of eight issued by DEQ in January for environmental violations, with fines ranging from $5,100 to $57,350.

The city has yet to actually pay the fine.

“We are working with DEQ trying to negotiate,” Young said. “Sometimes DEQ will allow us to just put that money toward construction costs. That’s what we’re hoping for.”