MARTINSBURG - The state Department of Environmental Protection is suing the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District over charges that its wastewater treatment plants violated water pollution standards during the last four years.
However, a district official maintains many of the cited problems have since been corrected and that the organization's overall compliance rate has not been an issue.
Scott Mandirola, director of the DEP Division of Water and Waste Management, is named as the plaintiff in the suit, which was filed Monday in Berkeley County Circuit Court.
The complaint cites water violations stemming from the district's four largest plants as well as half of the 12 smaller, package plants operated by the BCPSSD.
State law prohibits the discharge of any pollutant into its waters unless it's done in compliance with applicable water standards and a West Virginia National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit.
It limits the maximum daily and average monthly concentrations of pollutants contained in the effluent from the wastewater treatment facilities.
Limitations apply to biochemical oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, total suspended solids, ammonia nitrogen, zinc, silver, lead, cadmium, copper, chronic toxicity, cyanide, fecal coliform and pH levels.
As a result, the suit alleges discharge limit violations occurred March 2007 to February 2011 at the district's Opequon/Hedgesville, Inwood, Baker Heights and North End wastewater treatment plants as well as a pretreatment facility that handles industrial wastewater from Eco Lab.
For example, the suit states that the Opequon/Hedgesville plant experienced 45 minor, 46 moderate and 64 major exceedances of its permit limits.
Under the NPDES permit covering these plants (including the pretreatment facility for Eco Lab), the suit lists a total of 187 minor violations, 125 moderate violations and 108 major violations for a cumulative total of 420 separate violations.
That represents a total of 5,437 days of violations, according to the suit.
Additionally, permit limits were exceeded at the district's Woods II wastewater treatment plant with 146 minor, 131 moderate and 41 major violations.
Other discharge limit violations included Tomahawk Elementary, Northwind, Highpoint Subdivision, Austin (Ghant) Mobile Home Park, Falling Waters and Forest Heights wastewater treatment plants.
In addition to stopping the district from failing to comply with legal limits, the DEP also seeks civil penalties not to exceed $25,000 per day for each violation of the Water Pollution Control Act and WV NPDES permits.
BCPSSSD General Manager Curtis Keller defended the district's organization, stressing that it's not possible to operate a perfect system all the time.
He also said the district reports more than 500 different results to state officials throughout the year.
"So for a four-year period, we have submitted about 2,000 results and they are looking at 100 plus for some of the facility's violations," Keller said in a telephone interview Friday.
"We aim for 100 percent but sometimes things happen that are beyond our control. ... Even with what the suit alleges, we still operate at an 80- to 90-percent-overall compliance rate for our plants although some are more problematic than others," he said.
He also said some of the violations have been corrected since coming to the state's attention.
"We recognized we had a problem at the Opequon/Hedgesville plant and we are fixing it," Keller said.
"I also feel confident some of the violations are part of documentation we've already sent to the DEP, such as when we had equipment malfunction that was beyond our control to foresee. ... I feel we have a defense on a lot of the violations," he said.
Joe Hickman, assistant chief of inspections at the DEP Office of Environmental Enforcement, said action was taken because of the district's problematic track record.
In a telephone interview from his Charleston office, Hickman said the "substantial number of violations were the driving force behind the the lawsuit."
He said state regulators also "looked to determine if there had been a continuing pattern of violations. ... We look at both the frequency and severity of the violations."
If the DEP prevails, the court will ultimately decide how much the district will have to pay in fines, Hickman said.