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Sewage plant may be target of probe

Local, EPA officials mum on alleged pollution violations

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2000

Federal officials apparently are considering criminal charges in connection with pollution violations alleged at the Mendenhall Valley Sewage Treatment Plant.

City Attorney John Corso confirmed he and City Manager Dave Palmer met in Anchorage on Nov. 30 with representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office and the criminal investigation division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding EPA's complaint about plant operations.

Corso wouldn't discuss the content of the meeting and referred questions about possible criminal charges to the assistant U.S. attorney, Kevin Feldis, who declined to comment.

"It appears that you have run into a third 'declined comment'," said Loxton Gumbs, the EPA official who met with Corso and Palmer, when contacted by the Empire.

Gumbs said his job exclusively is to look at potential criminal aspects to a case.

"I look into matters to determine if there is a violation of the criminal statute," Gumbs said. "Because I come to knock on your door doesn't mean it is a criminal charge."

He said that EPA doesn't automatically engage its criminal investigation division just because fines are proposed for pollution incidents.

EPA filed a civil complaint against the City and Borough of Juneau in September for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act in June, September and November 1999. A fine of $60,000 was proposed for the alleged dumping of raw or partially treated sewage into the Mendenhall River and Gastineau Channel, and for the alleged failure to notify EPA promptly when a power outage and plant shutdown caused a sewage backup in homes on Aug. 29, 1999.

Federal officials said they based the complaint primarily on the city's own report of fecal coliform levels in effluent discharges, which exceeded regulations on six occasions by up to 437,000 percent. Fecal coliform indicates the presence of bacteria, viruses and parasites from human waste that can cause kidney failure and other maladies.

City officials said last month that a mix-up with laboratory samples gave the false impression of a violation in the worst case. That was disputed by the city's contractor, however, and on Thursday City Attorney Corso played down that line of defense. "I don't know the current status of that. But it's just a small piece of the case with EPA."

The city hasn't yet filed its formal response to EPA's complaint indicating whether it admits the violations or contests them, Corso said. "We will do so and that will be a public document, of course. We're more interested in working with the EPA than arguing with the EPA."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com



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