Modesto to pay $161,500 to end sewage spills lawsuit

12/05/2013 3:42 PM

12/05/2013 8:19 PM

Modesto has agreed to pay $161,500 to settle a lawsuit filed against it by a clean-water advocacy group, which claimed the city had violated the federal Clean Water Act because of more than 310 sewage spills from July 2007 through June 2012, which released nearly 379,000 gallons of raw or partially treated sewage.

The settlement calls for Modesto to pay the Stockton-based California Sportfishing Protection Alliance $96,500 for legal and other costs associated with suing the city, and $65,000 to a foundation for mitigation projects to improve or protect the San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers.

Modesto also has spent $53,088 to date on outside counsel in this matter, according to the city.

The alliance sued Modesto in December 2012 in federal court in Fresno. The city and the alliance reached a settlement last month, but the U.S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency are reviewing it. The agencies have until Jan. 6 to do so.

CSPA Executive Director Bill Jennings said he expects the settlement to meet with the agencies’ approval.

Modesto is not admitting to any violations. But the settlement calls for the city to meet a target for the number of sewage spills each year, conduct an inspection of certain sewer lines, develop protocols for maintaining its sewer collection system and provide the CSPA with annual reports on its efforts.

Modesto will pay the CSPA $2,000 annually for its costs in monitoring the city’s compliance. The amount rises to $4,000 if the number of sewage spills is above the target and the city needs to submit a plan on how it will reduce the number of spills. The settlement ends May 2017 if the city is in compliance, otherwise the settlement remains in effect on a year-to-year basis until the city is in compliance.

Spills can occur when sewer lines break, back up or are not properly maintained. Modesto has about 639 miles of sewer lines and processes 25 million gallons of sewage daily.

The city fared better than neighboring communities the CSPA has sued.

Sacramento County and the Sacramento Sewer District agreed to pay $660,000 in 2012 to resolve a CSPA lawsuit, and Stockton agreed to pay $550,000 in 2009 to end its CSPA lawsuit.

“Modesto was very proactive and this certainly was not the worst one we found in the Valley,” Jennings said.

Deputy Public Works Director Gary DeJesus said that when he came to Modesto in 2008, he knew the city was vulnerable to a lawsuit. It had 12.5 sewage spills for every 100 miles of sewer lines. There is no regulation stating how many spills are acceptable, but he said the rule of thumb appears to be five spills per 100 miles, based on comments made by EPA officials several years ago at a Southern California conference.

DeJesus said the city’s wastewater division has worked diligently since 2008 to reduce the number of spills. He said he was surprised the CSPA sued the city. At the time the lawsuit was filed, he said, Modesto had fewer than five spills per 100 miles and has maintained that level. The settlement calls for Modesto to have no more than five spills per 100 miles.

Still, DeJesus said he’s pleased the city started work on reducing its sewage spills in 2008 and concluded this litigation for substantially less money than what other cities sued by the CSPA have paid.

Jennings said the CSPA has sued about 200 cities, counties and others throughout Northern California in the past decade over violations of clean-water, pollution and other regulations. He said the typical settlement is $300,000 to $500,000. The Clean Water Act allows private parties to enforce its provisions.

The CSPA is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving, protecting and restoring the environment, wildlife and natural resources of the state’s waters, according to the settlement. Jennings said his nonprofit files lawsuits because regulatory agencies don’t have the resources – or in some cases the political will – to enforce environmental laws.

Jennings said the CSPA does not receive any money when it settles a lawsuit. He said the settlement money pays the CSPA’s attorneys and consultants and goes to the Rose Foundation for water-quality projects.

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