District faces another fine | TahoeDailyTribune.com

District faces another fine

Patrick McCartney

Still smarting over $50,000 in proposed fines from wastewater spills last fall, officials with the South Tahoe Public Utility District say they may fight a new fine proposed last week for an unrelated incident.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board notified the district that it will seek $7,000 in civil penalties for an accidental spill of 20,000 gallons of treated effluent at the district’s wastewater facility the last day of January.

A hearing on the spill, as well as two spills last fall, will be heard on June 6 or 7, when the Lahontan governing board meets in South Lake Tahoe.

On Monday, district officials expressed frustration and said they would oppose the action.

“The Monday-morning quarterbacking is getting out of hand,” said Julie Regan, the district’s public information officer.

The latest leak was blamed on a power surge during a power outage on Jan. 31 that cracked a pipeline outside a filtration plant. The leaking effluent was diverted into a ditch, which flowed into Heavenly Creek next to the district’s property.

But in its report, Lahontan staff stated the treated wastewater would have been diverted and treated, except that the district was still diverting runoff from entering its emergency retention pond. The 58 million gallon pond nearly filled during heavy flooding earlier in January, and the district stopped runoff from entering the pond until it was lowered to a safe level.

In his report, Lahontan engineer Scott Ferguson noted that the district should have had a “trigger mechanism” in place, which would have informed them when it was again safe to store runoff in the retention pond.

And Ferguson further observed “what appears to be a trend with inadequate facility or project oversight, especially when District staff are under stressful conditions.”

That comment drew the ire of district General Manager Bob Baer, who called it “a real insult to the employees of the district.”

But Baer conceded that the district should have known when the danger had passed at the retention pond.

“They make the point that there should have been a system in place, and I guess they’re right,” Baer said.

But he added that the latest incident, as well as the two spills from the fall that occurred during testing of the new wastewater export line, should be viewed in the larger context of the improvements the district is making to its water and sewer systems.

“It’s very discouraging that [Lahontan] looks for the one thing that could have been done differently,” Baer said. “It seems like they’re faulting us for working hard, for doing something instead of nothing.”

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