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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Lynchburg City: Incompetence Results in $56,680 in Fines


It seems to have taken the city of Lynchburg by surprise, we the tax payers are facing $56,680 in fines by what can only be defined as gross negligence by the city. And what is more disturbing is the city has failed to realize the level of its incompetence.

On May 17th, 2005, a chemical release of chlorine at the waste water plant was attributed to operator error. This spill could have had a serious human cost.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports:

"Chlorine gas can cause irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. Exposure to high levels can result in corrosive damage to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tissues and could lead to pulmonary edema and even death in extreme cases."

As it was three employees were injured by the release of the gas.

How the Lynchburg City failed:

While the City of Lynchburg may want you to misdirect you to the operator error that happened on the scene of the accident, it is how the city responded after the fact is why the city is facing these large fines. The city failure started at a low level of government, but soon because of inaction of upper level administrators the problem compounded. The state of Virginia provides easy access to these requirements. This failure to act in accordance to law is why the city is facing these penalties.

This from the EPA:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has filed an administrative complaint against the city of Lynchburg, Va., for failing to properly report a chlorine release from its wastewater treatment plant.

EPA’s complaint, which seeks $56,680 in penalties, alleges the plant operators did not immediately notify federal authorities, as required under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and did not provide a follow-up report in a timely manner after the release, as required by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).

According to the complaint, approximately 1,958 pounds of chlorine were released from Lynchburg’s wastewater treatment facility at 2301 Concord Turnpike in Lynchburg, shortly after 7 p.m. on May 17, 2005. Chlorine is considered a hazardous substance, and the facility is required to report any release of chlorine that exceeds the reportable quantity to the National Response Center (NRC) as soon as they are aware of the release.

Under CERCLA, the reportable quantity for chlorine is 10 pounds. The release, which was nearly 200 times the reportable quantity, was not reported to the NRC until 10:48 a.m on May 19, more than 36 hours after operators at the facility had knowledge of the release.

Chlorine gas can cause irritation of the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. Exposure to high levels can result in corrosive damage to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tissues and could lead to pulmonary edema and even death in extreme cases.

The EPA complaint also alleges violations of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, for failure to provide a follow-up report to the State Emergency Response Commission as soon as practicable after the release.

The alleged violations of CERCLA and EPCRA compromise the reporting systems of both statutes, which are designed to help federal, state and local responders properly respond to chemical releases. As a result, these violations pose potential harm to public health and the environment. EPA has proposed a penalty of $28,340 for each count, making the total proposed penalty $56,680. The city has 30 days to request a hearing.

The News and Advance reports:

"City officials did not report to the federal National Response Center until 36 hours later. The National Response Center is the “sole federal point of contact for reporting oil and chemical spills,” according to that agency’s Web site."

"'As for the EPA’s second charge that the city failed to file a report quickly enough, Payne said, “I think we think we did that.”'

"He said he and his staff were surprised to receive the complaint. City staffers had met with EPA officials after the leak occurred, according to the city’s release."

What is even more disturbing is how the city is acting while facing these large fines. In the city's news release is almost a glib attitude about the degree of their incompetence. This incompetence could have cost lives and now it will most likely cost you the tax payer for the city's failure.

The city news release:

City of Lynchburg Informed of EPA Complaint

The City of Lynchburg has received notification from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of an “Administrative Complaint,” charging violation of a section of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. The complaint was issued against the City as a result of the May 17, 2005 chlorine leak at the Lynchburg Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant located at 2301 Concord Turnpike. The EPA complaint alleges that the City did not contact a state agency in the prescribed time and that there was no follow-up with another state agency.

“We just received the letter on Thursday,” said City Manager Kim Payne. “Staff with the Utilities Department is currently wading through the 85-page document as well as searching through the Department’s files on the incident. I expect we will be better prepared to respond in the near future.” According to Utilities Director Tim Mitchell, City officials were surprised to have received the complaint.

“Shortly after the chlorine leak we sat down with officials from EPA and discussed the incident along with our remediation efforts,” said Mitchell. “They gave no indication there would be any type of enforcement action taken against the City. They seemed pleased with the way in which we handled the incident and with our risk management plan.”

The City found that the chlorine spill was attributable to operator error. Following the incident an internal re-examination of standard operating procedures in handling chlorine was conducted. To date, approximately $75,000 has been spent on improving safety in this area. Operators now undergo a rigorous certification training program with a heightened emphasis on procedures. New mechanical safety equipment has been installed to further lessen chances of another spill.

The City is implementing a new process to remove the hazardous chlorine from its plants. Conversion to the new process will take about one year. This spill is the first of its kind since the facility went on line in 1957. Serious injury or deaths were avoided due to the existing safety procedures and protocols used at the facility.

According to federal regulations the City must file an answer to the complaint within 30 days of its receipt. The City may also choose to request a hearing to contest any matter set forth in the complaint.


In this statement by the city pay particular attention to:

“We just received the letter on Thursday,” said City Manager Kim Payne. “Staff with the Utilities Department is currently wading through the 85-page document as well as searching through the Department’s files on the incident. I expect we will be better prepared to respond in the near future.” According to Utilities Director Tim Mitchell, City officials were surprised to have received the complaint.

They should not have been surprised, nor should they be talking about how they will be prepared in the future. They should be concerned about their failure, and they should be apologetic to each citizen of Lynchburg for handling this emergency wrong. Not only could it have caused more serious injuries, but it will most likely cost you; the tax payer $56,680. How far this extended into upper management should be investigated. This was a basic failure at the beginning: The city should have placed one call to an 800 number that is available 24 hours a day. It is also a failure for the Utilities Director to make sure if a follow up report is done according to law, if that is the case.

In reviewing how the EPA issues fines, they have the power to fine all levels of government including the Federal government. Most fines for cities have been mediated by requiring the cities to use the fine money to solve the problem found.

Will this be the case for Lynchburg? Not likely. The degree of the city's failure points to gross incompetence at all levels of our city government. The EPA considers use of fines in cases like these as an appropriate deterrent for future failures.

2 Comments:

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Rebecca said...

Despite all we know about the effects of cholorine, it's still got to be in our drinking supply. I had two filters in my house in L'burg and could still smell the chlorine from the taps.
The most frustrating aspect of it all is the fact that the fine will be passed on the lynchburgians somehow.

 
At 10:38 PM, Blogger B O B said...

Thanks for the comment Rebecca. It is really a shame this cost is going to be passed onto the taxpayers.

 

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