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City of Molalla threatened with lawsuit

A local conservation group, Bear Creek Recovery, provided notice Friday to the city of Molalla that it intends to file a civil lawsuit in federal court to protect Bear Creek and the Molalla River from violations of the city’s Clean Water Act permit.

Bear Creek Recovery’s concerns arise from the city’s history of unlawful operation of its wastewater treatment facility and what Bear Creek Recovery considers a failure by the city to take corrective action.

A 60-day notice included with the letter stated: “Unless the city takes the steps necessary to remedy ongoing violations of the CWA and the NPDES Permit, BCR intends to file suit against the city of Molalla in the U.S. District Court immediately following the expiration of the required sixty day notice period, seeking injunctive relief and civil penalties in the amount of $37,500 per day per violation enumerated below and for any additional, similar violations that BCR may discover subsequently.”

The notice to the city was made via certified mail in a letter dated Jan. 24, 2014.

City Manager Dan Huff said Monday morning that the city of Molalla had not as yet received the notice concerning the lawsuit.

“If we do receive something, our attorneys will handle the issue,” Huff said.

The city of Molalla operates its sewage treatment plant under a permit issued by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The city disposes of treated wastewater during the dry months by spraying the wastewater on fields outside the city limits adjacent to Bear Creek. The DEQ permit places limits on the irrigation practices utilized by the city and on its disposal of biosolids and management of the sewage treatment plant.

DEQ records show that the city has violated the terms of the permit over the past five years, particularly during the summer months, by applying treated wastewater on unauthorized land sites and in quantities that caused ponding and runoff on the fields.

The city’s largest irrigation field, which includes sections of Coleman Ranch, surrounds a stretch of Bear Creek, contains a number of sensitive wetlands and contributes flow to the creek, especially when the soil is saturated.

DEQ sent several warning letters to the city last fall notifying city officials of the violations and directing the city to cease the unlawful activity. The DEQ, however, has not brought an enforcement action against the city of Molalla.

Hansen, a local citizen, is concerned over the potential for pollutants to reach Bear Creek, impacting fish and wildlife habitat as well as posing a risk to the public who live and recreate near the creek.

“We can no longer sit back while DEQ looks the other way,” Hansen said. “We have a right as citizens to uphold the Clean Water Act and see that the city shows progress toward improving water quality in Bear Creek and the Molalla River.”

Under the Clean Water Act, individual citizens or groups may bring an action against an alleged violator. The citizen suit provision of the Clean Water Act serves to supplement both state and federal government enforcement actions so that all citizens can protect the waters they care about and depend upon.

This would be the second time that the city of Molalla is sued under the Clean Water Act for mismanagement of its sewage treatment plant. The city was also sued in 2006 for similar violations, said Christopher Winter, staff attorney and director of Crag Law Center, a public interest law firm based in Portland.

“It’s a sensitive topic,” Winter said. “We are hoping that the city will make a genuine effort to comply with this permit over the next two months, and we hope to be able to talk to the city about it.”

Winter said he handled the 2006 lawsuit against the city of Molalla for Molalla Irrigation Company. That case resulted in a settlement.

“Molalla Irrigation was involved, and a big part of that settlement related to irrigation practices,” he said. “So in many ways, the problems addressed by that settlement seem to be recurring.”

Maura Fahey, a legal fellow with the firm, stated that “Bear Creek Recovery is hopeful that we are able to resolve these issues with the city before formal litigation becomes necessary.”

Bear Creek Recovery is an Oregon non-profit organization formed to advocate for and protect the environment of Bear Creek and the surrounding community. Bear Creek Recovery has members who live, recreate, and work in the Bear Creek watershed, including near fields where the city of Molalla sprays and irrigates fields with recycled wastewater from the Molalla STP facility. Bear Creek Recovery is working to protect the Bear Creek watershed from threats to environmental and public health.

BCR board members include Jeff Lewis, chairman; Harlan Shober, vice chairman; Susan Hansen, secretary; Patricia Ross, treasurer; Pat Conley and Mitchell Ross.



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