Each year, Potomac Riverkeeper Network conducts a compliance sweep of all the discharge permits in each of the four regions under our three Riverkeeper Branches of the Potomac watershed. The goal of this compliance sweep is to generate a list of facilities that are polluting our water ways and breaking the law by violating their permits. In the Upper Potomac, at the top of the list for the last five years has been the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District, in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. The Sewer District operates four large waste water treatment plants that discharge into Opequon Creek, as well as several smaller treatment plants that also discharge into the various tributaries of both Opequon and Back Creek.
In October of 2011, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper uploaded a video on YouTube documenting the downstream effects from one of the main polluting facilities—the Opequon/Hedgesville Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharges into Eagle Run, a tributary of Opequon Creek. A multitude of sewer upsets at this plant sent raw sewage into Eagle Run. The sewer plant has been violating its discharge permit limits for fecal coliform, with an average measure of 60,000 CFUs (colony forming units) since 2010. The permit limit is 400 CFUs. With the Sewer District at the top of the list of major polluters in the Upper Potomac, we began to take action in 2011.
The actions we take as Riverkeepers have to be calculated and strategic. The Riverkeepers of Potomac Riverkeeper Network follow a process—we don’t just rush into legal action. We investigate and verify the pollution problem, communicate with the polluter to solve the problem, and if that fails, we push the State regulatory agency to take action. The very last step is to take legal action by filing a Clean Water Act lawsuit. The issues surrounding the situation with Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District included empty promises to the public, false actions, and an initial lack of response by the State. The Sewer District promised and assured the public that they were committed to installing the necessary mechanical upgrades to the plant to further prevent untreated sewage discharges, but ultimatley they failed to follow through on this commitment. The State also cited the Sewer District with violation after violation and took no immediate action. Finally, at the end of 2011, we decided to build a Clean Water Act case.
Building a Clean Water Act case takes time as you have to have sufficient evidence of ongoing violations. Unfortunately, in 2011 just as we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue (NOI), the State filed first. It would seem that the action taken by the State would be welcomed as we did ask them to do so, right? Unfortunately, during our investigation in building the case, we realized that the State filing an action may not be so beneficial after all. Some States have a tendency to hand hold their “clients” with this kind of reprimanding action. It took the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection four years to finally come to a resolution in court to solve these ongoing bacteria and ammonia violations polluting water every single day from 10 different facilities.
Finally, in 2014, a consent order was signed by a circuit court judge requiring the Sewer District to pay $300,000 in fines and set a compliance schedule to achieve their permit limits by 2015. It seems hard to believe that a Sewer District with almost a decade of bad track records will fix their systems in the span of one year. Rest assured, your Upper Potomac Riverkeeper will be monitoring the situation as it progresses.