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Group threatens to sue W.Va. sewer district

March 23, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Officials with Potomac Riverkeeper, a Rockville, Md., environmental activist group, say they will notify the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District today that a lawsuit could be filed if pollution of the river does not stop.

From 2001 to 2004, the Sewer District was cited for 126 violations of the Clean Water Act at two of its plants, Opequon and Baker Heights, and at various unpermitted sites throughout the county's stretch of river, Riverkeeper officials said.

The alleged violations include a concentration of ammonia nitrogen toxins that was nearly triple the permitted monthly concentration, excessive concentrations of oil and grease, and as many as 45 unsanctioned incidents of sewage discharge at many points along the river, the group states.

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Alleged violations also included biochemical oxygen demand. High levels of biochemical oxygen demand mean the level of oxygen in the water decreases, making it difficult to support fish and plant life in the river, said Alice Wilkerson, with Potomac Riverkeeper.

A 60-day notice will be mailed to the Sewer District today via certified mail, Wilkerson said.

Curtis Keller, general manager of the Sewer District, declined to answer specific questions regarding the allegations.

"Until we have the information that they're speaking of, there's really nothing we can address until we know what specifics there are," Keller said.

The Sewer District serves nearly 14,000 customers. Along with its Opequon and Berkeley Heights plants, the Sewer District also has plants in Inwood, W.Va., and Spring Mills, W.Va., along with smaller "package plants" that serve subdivisions, mobile home parks and schools, Keller said.

"We do our best to operate within our permit limits," Keller said.

Once the 60-day notice is mailed, the Sewer District has 60 days to come up with a plan of action that lets Potomac Riverkeeper know the Sewer District is aware of the situation and is taking steps to remedy the problems, Wilkerson said.

Under the Clean Water Act, permits are issued allowing sewer plants to discharge certain amounts of waste into the water, said Riverkeeper Ed Merrifield.

Allowing more waste to enter water sources than permitted is illegal, Merrifield said.

"To get in our good graces, all they have to do is conform to the law," he said.

If Potomac Riverkeeper officials are not satisfied after 60 days, a lawsuit could be filed in federal court, Wilkerson and Merrifield said.

"Usually, we try to work with them to make sure this doesn't happen in the future," Wilkerson said.

A 60-day notice also is being sent to the Warm Springs Public Sewer District in Morgan County.

The Warm Springs Public Sewer District has allowed a monthly concentration of fecal coliform that is four times the permitted amount, according to Potomac Riverkeeper. Also, the plant discharged 5,517 pounds of biochemical oxygen demand in September 2004 - more than two tons above the maximum amount allowed by law, the group says.

Work to create Potomac Riverkeeper began in 2000. Merrifield, the first Riverkeeper, was appointed in 2003, according to the organization's Web site.

Potomac Riverkeeper is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an umbrella organization for Keeper programs throughout North and Central America, the Web site indicates.

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