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Lahontan issues cleanup order to service station

Patrick McCartney

A regional water regulator has ordered a South Lake Tahoe service station to take further action to clean up underground fuel contamination, the agency’s director said Tuesday.

But the action by the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board may not mollify officials of the South Tahoe Public Utility District, who accused Lahontan of being tougher on the water district than on polluters.

Harold Singer, Lahontan’s executive officer, said the agency issued the cleanup and abatement order to the corporate owners of Terrible Herbst service station, and a letter asking for more information from the adjacent Muffler Palace.

The action followed results from monitoring wells in January that showed high levels of hydrocarbons beneath the site, including the oxygenated additive known as MTBE, which is classified as a possible carcinogen.

Officials with the South Tahoe utility district last week complained that Lahontan was inconsistent in its enforcement.

Lahontan has proposed charging the district $50,000 in civil penalties for two spills last fall during the testing of a portion of the district’s new wastewater export line. A hearing on the proposed fines is tentatively set for June 5 in South Lake Tahoe.

Yet, despite three cleanup orders in 12 years, Terrible Herbst has not been fined, said Chris Strohm, president of the district’s board of directors.

“We still believe that it is unfair, inconsistent and unproductive for Lahontan to fine us $50,000 for spilling 10 pounds of basically fertilizer into the river that wasn’t detectable 50 feet downstream, while carcinogens have spilled for 13 years without a fine,” Strohm said.

Still, he added that he was pleased with Lahontan’s quick action to order further remedial action at the Terrible Herbst site, which is uphill from one of the district’s principal drinking water wells.

Singer said he would not criticize the district for protesting the fines, which he said is its right, nor for its demands that Lahontan take action of the service station contamination.

But he defended the agency’s actions in proposing the fines and added that, contrary to the belief of some critics of the Lahontan agency, most of the money from fines against the South Tahoe district have remained within the basin.

While the fines cannot be plowed back into the project that was subject to the fine, it can, and has been used for other types of projects, Singer said.

Singer also said that readings from monitoring wells in March showed “considerably lower” levels of contaminants compared to the readings in January that alarmed the South Tahoe district. No explanation for the differences was readily apparent, he added.

Both Singer and Strohm said they hope to keep the relationship between the two agencies as professional as possible.

“I think they realize we’re trying to do our job,” Singer said.

Strohm replied by saying that continued bickering would help neither agency.

“I don’t know that anyone wins when both parties leave the ring bloody,” Strohm said.


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