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Federal fine

Doing the right thing does not always pay off. In fact, it can come with a hefty fine as the city of Hays has found out.

The city recently discovered it was assessed an $18,000 fine from the Environmental Protection Agency for having excessive ammonia levels in the discharge leaving the city's wastewater treatment facility.

That the amount of nitrates present in the discharge was outside EPA parameters in 2011 and 2012 is without question. At the time, municipal workers at the wastewater plant were working with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on processes designed to get the facility into compliance with standards found in the Clean Water Act. Hays actually has been working with KDHE since 2009 to find ways to meet increasingly tougher federal guidelines on nitrate, ammonia and phosphate discharges.

Dealing with a facility built in the 1950s, even with its numerous expansions and remodels, is a challenge.

"We were testing processes here that had unintended consequences," said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty. "It took over a year to finally fix the situation, during which time we were trying something that the city and KDHE had jointly devised. It did have positive effects, but had negative as well."

The staff report on the experiment said both the state and city were attempting to find successful remedies that hopefully could avoid expensive replacements of older treatment facilities such as the one in Hays. The estimated replacement cost here would be $35 million.

We would think the EPA would have shown more mercy as the good-faith testing was designed to save communities money. Perhaps the EPA did, as the initial fine levied was $29,000. But discovering the violations by going through old paperwork, particularly when the state was well aware of the situation, shouldn't have required monetary punishment. The city was attempting to do the right thing and, if there was a way to go back in time, likely would do again.

But if fines are the reward for such an effort, the city likely will think twice about doing it again in the future.

"Originally, when our permit was due, our intent was to work with the state, adjusting the process to see if we could curb the various levels that need to come down as required by regulation," said Paul Briseno, assistant Hays city manager. "Because of that process, we eventually violated our permit. Therefore, it's tough to say that we would go through that process again."

City commissioners will discuss the issue at its work session tonight, although there's not much to debate in regards to the fine. The ammonia levels, which would have been acceptable 20-plus years ago, were too high for current standards. There isn't a legal leg to stand on.

But commissioners should be aware EPA regulations likely won't loosen moving forward. Rather, they'll continue tightening. At some point, a solution will be necessary for a treatment plant that simply can't keep pace with the changing standards. The only question is at what point that time will come.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net