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DEQ penalizes city of Molalla for pollution of Bear Creek

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) leveled a fine against the city of Molalla for causing the pollution of Bear Creek waters on May 11, 2015 and failing to report the discharge to DEQ as required.

On the morning of May 11, city employees discovered a discharge of partially treated sewage from the city's wastewater treatment plant flowing directly into Bear Creek. Following the spill, Molalla Public Works Director Jennifer Cline told the Pioneer that city employees had gone to work to stop the spill and clean up the released effluent as soon as it was discovered.

“The city immediately notified the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) about this incident and has been working with the agency to ensure an appropriate investigation and response,” Cline said at that time.

According to the DEQ, the city was required to report the discharge into Bear Creek within 24 hours of discovering it, but did not report it until May 15.

In a letter dated Sept. 3, 2015 and addressed to City Manager Dan Huff, DEQ Manager Leah K. Feldon wrote that her agency "has issued you a civil penalty of $4,350 for causing pollution of waters of the state when you discharged partially treated sewage to Bear Creek on May 11, 2015, and for failing to timely report the discharge to the creek as required by your wastewater discharge permit.”

According to the DEQ, failure to comply with reporting conditions applicable to the May 11, 2015 discharge into Bear Creek is considered a Class I violation.

Feldon wrote that the DEQ issued the penalty because “discharge of wastewater that has not been completely treated to reduce bacteria can impair water quality and pose a risk to human health.” She said failing to comply with the notice requirements of the permit “inhibits DEQ's ability to ensure that human health and the.environment are protected.”

With the letter, the DEQ sent a seven-page Notice of Civil Penalty Assessment dated Sept. 3, 2015, which further details DEQ's reasons for issuing the penalty and provides instructions for an appeal. The notice also includes the findings and conclusions of the case and shows how the fine was formulated.

The notice, dated Sept. 3, 2015, states that on May 11, the city “discharged, by its estimate, 1,000-1,200 gallons of partially treated wastewater that had not undergone disinfection for elimination of bacteria to Bear Creek." . . . The city “must report any noncompliance that may endanger human health or the environment by telephone to DEQ within 24 hours of the time permittee becomes aware of the circumstances.”

Also according to the notice, the city was required to “identify in its oral report the water body to which its overflow discharged." The document states the city "was aware on May 11 that the overflow that occurred on that day discharged to Bear Creek, but did not report that fact to DEQ until May 15, 2015.”

Huff said Thursday that it has not yet been decided whether the city will pay the fine or appeal the case.

“We don’t know yet,” Huff said. “We have a few days to contemplate whether we will appeal or pay the fine. I dispute some of the language in the letter, but whether we will just pay the fine and move on . . . we need to consider all our options.”

If they should decide to appeal the matter, city administrators have 20 calendar days from receipt of the notification to submit the appeal in writing to the DEQ.

“Once DEQ receives your request, we will arrange to meet with you to discuss this matter," Feldon wrote. "If DEQ does not receive a timely written hearing request, the penalty will become due."

Feldon said the DEQ may allow the city to resolve part of the penalty through the completion of a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP). SEPs are environmental improvement projects that the city would sponsor in lieu of paying the penalty.

Huff said completing a SEP project may be something the city will consider as a way to resolve a portion of the penalty.

“We need to contemplate what we would like to do,” Huff said. “Whether we dispute the language that’s in the actual letter we received from DEQ or not, we still have to consider our options.”