The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

April 26, 2012

State files suit against Ardmore water and sewer

 

Citing violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act, State Attorney Gen. Luther Strange has filed a lawsuit against Ardmore’s Water Works and Sewer Board.

The civil lawsuit, filed April 11 in Limestone County Circuit Court, seeks to recover $25,000 per violation. The suit alleges that Ardmore’s wastewater treatment facility, located at 29529 Jones Ave., discharges pollutants into Piney Creek, a tributary of the Tennessee River.

The suit was filed nine days ahead of a similar suit brought by Decatur-based conservation group Tennessee Riverkeeper Inc. The group served a notice of intent to sue on Feb. 14, but could not formally file a suit until 60 days after the notice of intent.

The group filed suit on April 20, according to Tennessee Riverkeeper attorney Mark Martin, who was not aware the attorney general’s suit had been filed.

Tennessee Riverkeeper officials discovered an alleged 2,024 violations of the Clean Water Act and that the Ardmore Water Board exceeded discharge limitations for ammonia, biochemical oxygen demand, E.Coli and other suspended solids. The violations, the group said, occurred from August 2007 to present.

Also unaware of the lawsuit was Wayne Miller, superintendent of Ardmore Water Works and Sewer Board.

He said he did not know if town officials had received a summons. A call made to Ardmore attorney Patrick Anderson regarding the case was not returned prior to press time.

After learning about Tennessee Riverkeeper’s intent to sue, Miller spoke with officials at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. He said officials told him the state would file a suit to protect the utility from Tennessee Riverkeeper’s lawsuit.

“I don’t think it changes anything, but it keeps (ADEM) in control on the amount of litigation and they can control the amount of fines,” he said. “The Riverkeepers can sue for whatever they want.”

He said the state’s move is “not really unusual” and that it happens quite frequently. He expects officials with ADEM will review the utility’s data, levy some fines and request it hire an engineering firm to develop a long-range plan.

Jerome Hand, spokesman for ADEM, said he had been informed the attorney general was handling the case and that all information about the case should come from Strange’s office. A call seeking information about the lawsuit was not returned prior to press time.

Martin said the state’s lawsuit could certainly be a hindrance to Tennessee Riverkeeper’s ultimate goal — to bring the utility into compliance with state and federal standards.

“If (the state) could get $25,000 per violation, that would be an extraordinary penalty,” he said. “They never get any kind of penalty like that. They usually settle for $25,000 or less.”

Martin said anytime the Tennessee Riverkeeper threatens suit against an alleged polluter, the state would typically step in and file its own lawsuit. He said the state would “sit on a case for years and do nothing” until the conservation group files suit.

“The only thing (the state’s lawsuit) does is protect the permit holder from our lawsuit. (ADEM) is in the business of protecting polluters,” he said. “It serves our purpose if ADEM comes in and stops the pollution, but it frustrates our attorneys if the lawsuit gets dismissed.”

Martin said, however, Tennessee Riverkeeper may be able to circumvent the state’s lawsuit by intervening in the state’s case. If the judge allows such an action, he said, it would help ensure the case is more diligently prosecuted and that the settlement is appropriate.

“The bright side is, the state is doing something to stop the bad pollution, so we can take some solace in that, but we would rather prosecute our own lawsuits,” he said. “We’re in favor of ADEM enforcing the Clean Water Act and wish they would do it more readily and not rely on our action to spur on their action.”

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