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Berkeley Co. Council to discuss alleged sewer violations

A lawsuit claims the district committed more than 1,000 violations of state Water Pollution Control Act

August 25, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com
  • Berkeley County Council members Jim Whitacre, left, Doug Copenhaver and Elaine Mauck meet the public after being sworn in. The council will meet behind closed doors with members of the county's Public Sewer Service District next week to review allegations that the utility committed more than 250 major violations since 2007.
Herald-Mail file photo

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The Berkeley County Council will meet behind closed doors with members of the county's Public Sewer Service District next week to review allegations that the utility committed more than 250 major violations since 2007.

"I'm very disappointed ... that our residents are being let down, if these allegations are proven to be correct," Council President William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said of charges outlined in a lawsuit filed against the sewer district by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"I'm disappointed with the alleged number of violations and the alleged number of days (of violations)," he said.  

The DEP's lawsuit claims the sewer district committed more than 1,000 violations (including minor and moderate infractions) of the state Water Pollution Control Act between 2007 and February 2011, according to court documents.

The DEP, which lists thousands more days of violations in their civil complaint, is asking a Circuit Court judge to stop the sewer district from violating state law and a federal pollutant discharge permit program administered by the state environmental enforcement agency.

William F. Rohrbaugh, the attorney for the sewer district, said last week that the utility intended to review its records and compare them with the specific allegations contained in the lawsuit, but otherwise declined to comment. The Berkeley County Public Sewer Service District is the lone defendant in the lawsuit, which was filed on Aug. 15, according to the clerk's office of the Circuit Court.  

The DEP also has asked the court to assess civil penalties against the defendant, citing state code that provides a maximum $25,000 penalty per day for each violation.

Stubblefield said Thursday in the council's regular meeting that he preferred to hold the discussion with the sewer district in open session, but the pending litigation prevented that.

Council member Douglas E. Copenhaver Jr., who is currently the council's liaison to the sewer district's board, said he too felt "very let down" by the allegations spanning about four years and was shocked to read about the lawsuit in the newspaper last weekend.

Copenhaver said he contacted the sewer district Monday morning "demanding some answers."

Council member Elaine Mauck, who said she had firsthand knowledge of the alleged discharge violations outlined in the lawsuit, clarified in an interview after Thursday's meeting that she toured one of the streams where the DEP alleges violations occurred when the sewer district discharged treated wastewater there.

"I was highly disappointed," Mauck said.

Donna Seiler, the Berkeley County litter control/code enforcement officer, confirmed Thursday that she was with Mauck and a DEP official this summer when they visited a discharge outlet for the Opequon/Hedgesville wastewater treatment plant off Eagle School Road.

Mauck and Seiler said the water of the Opequon Creek tributary at the time appeared foamy and brownish in color and it emitted a foul odor.

"It was horrible looking," Mauck said, describing a "ring" of filth along the stream's edge.

There were solids and evidence of "a lot" of fecal worms in the stream, and there appeared to be releases of the foul odor happening about every 15 minutes, according to Mauck and Seiler.

"It was very frothy," Seiler said.

The DEP's lawsuit alleges the sewer district's outlet along Eagle Run for the Opequon/Hedgesville plant "experienced" 64 major violations of discharge limits between March 2007 and February 2011. There were a total of 91 minor and moderate permit limit violations in the same time span, according to the lawsuit.

The Opequon/Hedgesville wastewater treatment plant, a 1.6-million gallon per day sewage collection and treatment system, had the highest number of violations among the four largest sewer district facilities named in the lawsuit.

Stubblefield said state law limits the county council's oversight of the sewer district to appointing new members to the utility's board of directors, but "hopefully, the legislators someday can correct that."

Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley/Morgan, who attended Thursday's meeting, agreed the law needed to be changed to allow for more supervisory oversight by the county.

"I think it's well within the mandate of the Legislature to move forward and correct this error," said Kump, suggesting county officials help draft a bill to change the law.

Kump said he also feels the public should be notified of violations because they could be swimming in water and not know about a violation or spill.

Kump told council members that he gets more calls and letters from residents on wastewater issues, including privately owned septic systems, than any other concern.

Those not served by the county sewer district ask, "Why should we hook up to a system that doesn't do as well as our septic system?," Kump said.

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