“We’re in an unenviable position”
The ramifications of a sewer spill that occurred nearly two years ago in Mt. Crested Butte are still being negotiated between the state and the Mt. Crested Butte Water and Sanitation District, although officials believe the settlement could carry a $16,000 fine, among other penalties.
Water and Sanitation District board chairman Bill Racek says a few stipulations have been reached, but a final approval from the state is still in limbo, with no definite timeline. “We continue to have some discussions with the state with regards to what it’s going to take to get that issue behind us,” Racek says of the spill incident. In December 2005, a large sewage overflow occurred after an intake pipe of Mt. Crested Butte’s sewer system was 90 percent blocked by a log, PVC pipe and construction debris. The sewage backed up and the district was unable to divert the flow around the blocked pipe fast enough. Five hundred thousand gallons of untreated sewage was released from a manhole on Gothic Road. The district failed to immediately notify the state Department of Public Health and Environment and the incident was reported to the state by a third party 17 days later. The district filed its official notice on January 11, 2006. In response, the district was ordered to update its emergency plans for spills and conduct an engineering survey of the sewer capacities to see if additional pipes or improvements were needed. An independent engineering company determined that Mt. Crested Butte did not need to build additional sewer lines at this time. A state enforcement measure is still pending from the spill, which could require a financial penalty and additional facilities. Despite ongoing settlement negotiations, the state has not announced any sanctions against the district, leaving district officials to wonder just what the state will ask for. According to High County Citizens’ Alliance water resources director Steve Glazer, the state is required to negotiate with the district before issuing sanctions against them, a process that has been ongoing for nearly two years. “The state does have the authority to make arbitrary decisions, but there’s also a requirement that they negotiate stipulations with the violator… There has to be final agreement between the parties,” Glazer says. Water and Sanitation District manager Frank Glick says there could be a fine but, ”You could spend that money on remediation or some other environmental issue… We’re trying to find some place to spend those funds locally.” Mt. Crested Butte town manager Joe Fitzpatrick says the town will not be directly affected by any state decision, but could be the recipient of mitigation funds. Racek says the district board made a supplemental mitigation offer to the state Department of Health and Environment on May 8, 2007. This proposal included $48,108 to the Crested Butte Land Trust for cleanup work at the Peanut Mine, and $16,036 to the state for a civil penalty. It has not yet been accepted by the state. The state is required to make a public notice of its final decision against the Water and Sanitation District for failing to report the spill in a timely fashion and for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Two other wastewater spills have also occurred recently in Mt. Crested Butte and may affect the state’s final decision. In September 2005 a manhole began overflowing and 250,000 gallons of sewage were released, only a few months before the December spill the state is reviewing. In December 2006 another spill occurred when 500 gallons backed up at the wastewater treatment plant. Both of these incidences were reported and contained properly. In the latest spill the accompanying state report indicated that construction debris seemed to be the primary culprit in clogging the sewers. Fitzpatrick says the Town has tightened its oversight of construction management plans since the spills, but doesn’t have the resources to keep a constant watch on construction sites. “It’s a very difficult situation when there’s a lot of activity going on,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’ll watch as closely as we can.” The Water and Sanitation District also does not have the resources to constantly monitor construction sites, according to Racek. As far as the state’s ruling, Glazer says the response has not been timely. The state should have reached a conclusion a year ago, but Glazer says the problem may be the state Department of Public Health and Environment doesn’t have enough staff to review all their cases efficiently. Citing the pending wastewater discharge permit for the Lucky Jack Mine along with the sewage spill, Glazer says, “Neither of these processes should be taking two years… I think they’re dragging their feet.” Racek agrees that an agreement is hard to reach, despite settlement offers from the district. “It’s completely open to the state,” he says. “You could go on forever as far as they’re concerned. We’re in an unenviable position having to do what they say when they say.”