Tops Trailer Park nets stiff fine from DEQ
Warning of the potential for contamination of the city of Madras' water supply, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has issued a stiff fine to the owners of Tops Trailer Park.
The notice of violation, sent out to Phil and Brigitte Morsman on Dec. 19, assesses a civil penalty of $194,842 "for failing to connect to the city of Madras sewer system and for discharging sewage onto the ground surface."
The Morsmans own the 60-unit Tops Trailer Park, located on 7 acres just outside the city limits on the south side of Depot Road.
The violations and penalties stem from several incidents in 2006 when the trailer park's dry well failed, causing a discharge of sewage.
Although new dry wells -- drainage pits for the leaching of liquid waste -- are no longer allowed in Oregon, the Morsmans have had a permit to operate the dry well, in conjunction with a septic tank for collecting solids, since 1999.
The DEQ considers the permit an interim measure because "in an effort to protect groundwater, the environment and public health, the state is working to phase out waste disposal wells altogether," according to Joni Hammond, interim deputy director, in the violation notice.
As conditions of the permit, she continued, the Morsmans "were required to abandon the well and connect the facility to city sewer when sewer became available," and prevent discharge of sewage onto the ground's surface.
The Morsmans, who have 20 days from the date they received the notice to contest the DEQ order and penalty, intend to appeal, according to their attorney, Michael Sheehan, of Scappoose.
"We certainly will fight it," said Sheehan. "Our position has been that the system has been in there since 1950-something. The system hasn't failed."
Instead, he said, the system was vandalized in June of 2006, and the Morsmans maintain that the discharge was a result of that vandalism.
"Someone broke the top off the clean-out valve, and stuffed beer bottles, pop cans in it," Sheehan said, noting that he has photographs of the damage.
"Regardless of whether or not the well had been vandalized, your permit required you to report the system failure and discharge of sewage to the department, and the treatment of the well with caustic soda is strictly prohibited by Oregon lawn," Hammond wrote in her notice.
The DEQ misunderstood about the use of caustic soda, which wasn't used by the Morsmans, and was never used in the well, Sheehan countered.
When the trailer park's septic tank was pumped, he explained, "the guy put caustic soda in the septic tank to take care of the solids -- to make them pumpable -- and it was pumped out right then."
In addition to the June discharge that wasn't reported, the notice cites three occasions in October of 2006 when officials observed discharge at the trailer park.
On Oct. 25, 2006, DEQ officials observed overflow from the well flowing downhill into a roadside ditch along Northwest Fourth Street, into a culvert that crossed under the roadway and into an area that slopes toward U.S. Highway 26.
"Had the flow gone further, it would have reached Willow Creek, waters of the state," Hammond wrote.
Hammond further noted that the city of Madras' drinking water comes from underground wells, "one of which is within approximately one-quarter of a mile of your facility."
The Morsmans' well reaches a depth of 326 feet -- about 30 to 40 feet above the city's drinking water well system. "The department is concerned that the well at your facility will impact drinking water for the city of Madras," she wrote.
After the vandalism in 2006, the Morsmans were forced to spend about $20,000 to have the septic tank pumped out once a day for about a week "because the DEQ wouldn't let them clear out the dry well shaft," Sheehan said.
He discounts the possibility of an impact on city water, pointing out that the Morsmans' system has worked properly since it was repaired after the vandalism. "I went and pulled the well logs for the city wells, and there hasn't been a problem," he said.
In the notice, the DEQ found that the Morsmans have been in violation of their permit every day since Oct. 2, "by failing to decommission the well at their property and failing to connect to the city of Madras sewer system when it became reasonably available."
Since that date, the notice states, "the city of Madras sewer system has been approximately 1,830 feet" from the Morsmans' property, and they "have not connected to the city system as required by their permit and Oregon law."
Sheehan questioned why the Morsmans, who have a manufactured home park for low-income people, should have to pay an estimated $500,000 to $800,000 to "run sewer through all that hard rock."
He suggested that Morsman is willing to connect to city sewer if the city brings sewer up to his property. The city could set up an improvement district or reimbursement district to recoup its costs, Sheehan said.
"Making Morsman front the capital will wipe Morsman and that manufactured home park out," said Sheehan. "This is way too much money, and for what? The system is working fine."