Utility district and Lahontan on collision course | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Utility district and Lahontan on collision course

Patrick McCartney

A feud between two public agencies that’s featured more sparring than a heavyweight boxing match is headed for a final resolution Friday.

That’s when the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board will consider $50,000 in civil penalties against the South Tahoe Public Utility District for two spills of treated wastewater. The spills occurred last fall during tests of a new wastewater export line.

But the proposed fines has incensed officials with the South Tahoe district, who accuse Lahontan of dragging its feet in more serious cases. The district has rallied public support for its cause.

In return, the chairman of the Lahontan board described the district as the region’s worst violator of clean-water regulations, and said enforcement actions to improve performance have been fruitless.

“If there are hard feelings, let’s get them out on the table,” said Bob Dodds, assistant executive officer of the Lahontan board. “It’s silly to make charges back and forth.”

Officials with the South Tahoe district say they feel singled out by the state regulatory agency, when other violators have not been fined. They point out that the Lahontan agency has still not been able to clean up contamination from leaking underground fuel tanks at two South Shore service stations despite a decade of wrangling.

“If they are going to hold us to a standard, they should hold themselves to the same standard,” said Rick Hydrick, the district’s operations manager. “Why is it OK for Lahontan not to have enough inspectors when fuel tanks were pulled at the Muffler Palace (the site of a former Exxon service station) and Terrible Herbst, but not us?”

Hydrick said he would fine Lahontan if he had the authority.

In a letter to the district, Lahontan board chairman Ossian Butterfield compared the district’s history of violations, and described it as possibly the worst in the state. Within the Lahontan district, the South Tahoe district had 143 major violations in the past 10 years, while the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency had 25 and the Lake Arrowhead Community Sanitation District had 24. Like South Tahoe, the Lake Arrowhead district is required to export wastewater out of its mountain valley.

“The regional board has taken every possible enforcement action to convince STPUD to improve their performance …,” Butterfield wrote. “Nothing has worked. STPUD appears to be getting worse.”

Butterfield added that previous enforcement actions leveled against the district were for violations caused “by negligence or stupidity.”

Those are fighting words to South Tahoe district officials, who say their $34 million project to replace the export line will eliminate past problems.

“As far as the number of violations goes, I think it’s a comparison of apples and oranges,” said Bob Baer, the district’s general manager. “When you compare apples to apples, we’ll show the district is definitely a well-run operation.”

To press its case, the South Tahoe district for the first time ever requested its legal counsel to write an opposition statement. Prepared by Kevin Neese, the 37-page statement dismisses Lahontan’s accusation of negligence, saying the district had hired four inspectors for the project, which was more than required.

Lahontan officials defended the proposed penalties, saying they were appropriate for the seriousness of the spill. Dodds said the Lahontan agency was preparing to issue the district a commendation for its handling of the New Year’s Day flood, when the report of the two spills surfaced.

“They never admitted anything needed to be done to correct the problem,” Dodds said.

At a glance:

What: Hearing on proposed fines for two spills by South Tahoe Public Utility District

Who: Fines proposed by Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board

When: Friday, 8:30 a.m.

Where: Tahoe Seasons Resort at Heavenly Valley

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