EPA settlement could save Oak Ridge several million dollars

A potential agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settling fines for sewer system overflows in Oak Ridge could save the city several million dollars.

The fines during a five-year period ending September 2010 could have totaled between $4 million and $5 million, city officials said this week.

But under negotiations between the city and EPA, the penalties could be lowered to approximately $170,000, Oak Ridge City Attorney Ken Krushenski said Tuesday. The city would have to pay $102,000 in cash and might get a “dollar-for-dollar” credit for spending another $68,000 on a supplemental environmental project, or SEP.

The SEP money could be used to fix leaking private sewer laterals, or pipes that connect private homes to the city sewer system, for property owners who can’t afford to do the work themselves, Oak Ridge Public Works Director Gary Cinder said Wednesday.

“We’ve got to get the laterals repaired,” Cinder said. “Leaking private sewer laterals are just as big a problem as city sewer mains.”

He said lateral repairs can cost several thousand dollars.

The SEP, which would likely be administered by a nonprofit organization, can’t be used for a project that the city was going to do anyway, Cinder said.

The EPA wants the city to respond soon to its final offer, and the Oak Ridge City Council might consider the settlement details during its regular May 7 meeting, city officials said.

If the offer is not accepted, the violations could be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice, and the fines could jump back up to $4 million to $5 million, Krushenski said.

Cinder said the fines are not being assessed for overflows that happened after an EPA order was issued in September 2010. That order requires Oak Ridge to repair all sewer system overflows by 2015.

“We’re currently in a holding pattern while we’re under the order,” Cinder said. “We would not continue to be fined for any overflows while we demonstrate to EPA that we’re making satisfactory progress and we continue to do the things that they want done.”

Cinder said the total sewer system repair costs are unknown, but a report due in September could provide a good cost estimate. System problems include water that drains into pipes and manholes, contributing to overflows.

Earlier this month, the Oak Ridge City Council unanimously approved water and sewer rate increases that could total between 28 percent and 35 percent, and most of the sewer rate increase was related to work required under the EPA order.

The first phase of the higher rates goes into effect May 1, and they will rise again in 2013.

Oak Ridge Finance Director Janice E. McGinnis has said repairs to the city’s 70-year-old sewer system will require more than $18 million in borrowed money during the next four years, and fixes to the water system will require an additional $16 million.

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