Concrete’s wastewater fine cut in half

January 30, 2019
Algae covers a lagoon next to Concrete’s wastewater treatment facility in September 2016. The state Department of Ecology recently fined the town for discharging untreated wastewater into the lagoon.

CONCRETE — The town of Concrete and the state Department of Ecology reached a settlement agreement last week regarding a fine for wastewater violations.

The agreement cuts the fine in half — from $12,800 to $6,400 — as long as the town meets several requirements between now and April 2022.

Ecology fined the town in June for not properly maintaining and operating its wastewater treatment plant, discharging untreated wastewater and not reporting violations in a timely manner.

Concrete appealed the fine to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board in July.

With the settlement agreement reached, Concrete Mayor Jason Miller said he feels conflicted.

“I’m relieved that the town likely will not have to pay the suspended half of the original fine,” he said, but added he’s disappointed Ecology didn’t acknowledge that design and construction flaws contributed to the issues that resulted in the fine.

The town will pay the reduced fine using sewer funds. The $6,400 will go toward Ecology’s Coastal Protection Fund that issues grants for water quality restoration projects.

Miller said the requirements laid out in the settlement agreement are already required as part of the town’s wastewater treatment plant permit, and many are in progress.

The plant handles sewage from about 400 homes and businesses, according to Ecology. The facility releases treated wastewater into the Baker River, which meets the Skagit River.

The main problem that led to the fine, according to Ecology, is that due to improper maintenance, untreated sewage was routed into a holding pond, called a lagoon, when more wastewater was coming into the plant than it could handle.

While Miller said the town respects Ecology’s authority and wants to do its part to keep water resources clean, the town has been overburdened by requirements handed down in recent years, starting with Ecology’s demand that the town build the existing wastewater treatment plant in 2008 in an effort to replace the outdated lagoon system.

“The challenges facing the town of Concrete regarding its wastewater treatment plant are a stellar example of what happens when state agencies lob unfunded mandates at low-income communities: We can’t possibly comply without going into debt and/or failing to jump through all the costly back-end hoops,” Miller said.

The town’s construction of the wastewater treatment plant put the town about $4 million in debt, which the town — and its residents — are paying off, Town Clerk Andrea Fichter said.

The town has also faced a series of repair and upgrade needs at the new treatment plant, making it unable to afford decommissioning its wastewater lagoon — a pond of algae-laden wastewater not far from the west bank of the Baker River.

Decommissioning the lagoon remains the one task outlined in the settlement agreement that Miller said he is not entirely confident can be completed by the deadline that has been set.

“The lagoon decommissioning is an item of concern,” Miller said. “The decommissioning would have taken place within two years of the plant going online but for the cost — well over $200,000, by all accounts.”

Decommissioning the lagoon will involve removing the waste that remains and filling in the massive hole.

Before that happens, the town is required to address inflow and infiltration issues with its sewer system and wastewater treatment plant in order to prevent excess wastewater from entering the treatment plant.

Miller said that work is expected to be completed this year and is one of several wastewater projects the town has been working toward for years but has been unable to complete without grant funding.

“We are not a town that has been thumbing its nose at (Ecology) for the past decade,” he said.

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