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Houston sued over years of illegal sewage spills

September 21, 2018

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit illegal sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiations that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling sewer treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code, and to assess civil penalties that could reach a maximum of $32,500 to $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

Regulators also filed a motion to pause the proceedings for 90 days, however, with the aim of reaching an agreed settlement with the city.

The “highly technical” negotiations had progressed well prior to Hurricane Harvey, the filing states, but were only recently resumed after a post-storm hiatus.

The timeline appeared to have been accelerated by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and filed its own lawsuit over the violations on Friday.

The nonprofit’s announcement — which was referenced in federal and state authorities’ motion to pause the proceedings — was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens who wish to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the Environmental Protection Agency or its state counterparts to take action on their own.

“Our hope was that within these 60 days we’d hear about some definitive action from the city or the EPA or the state about how this problem was going to be resolved,” Kristen Schlemmer of Bayou City Waterkeeper said Friday morning. “The EPA, by filing its own action, has signaled to us that it wants to take charge of resolving the problem.”

Neither Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office nor Houston Public Works provided an immediate response to Friday morning requests for comment.

mike.morris@chron.com

twitter.com/mmorris011

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