Pueblo District Attorney Bill Thiebaut has filed what may amount to a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Colorado Springs for illegal sewage spills.
For embattled Colorado Springs Utilities, the lawsuit, filed in a Denver federal court last week, marks the latest in a string of costly setbacks linked to an inability to halt floods of sewage floating downstream and to protect sewer lines from vandals.
On Oct. 6, Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment handed the utility its second major pollution fine and enforcement order in as many years. This one levied a $110,000 penalty and mandated sewage system repairs that, according to CSU, could cost as much as $40 million over the next seven years.
Thiebaut maintains Colorado Springs generally has gotten off lightly for the pollution that spills into Fountain Creek and flows south to Pueblo, making the waterway a persistent health hazard.
"The fines heretofore haven't been anywhere near realistic," he says.
Since 1999, more than 73 million gallons of untreated wastewater has flowed into the creek. The vast majority was let loose when floods washed out a sewage treatment plant six years ago.
But big spills returned this summer. Vandals broke off a manhole cover and filled a pipe with debris, causing a 26,400-gallon spill in May. A deadly hailstorm in June overwhelmed sewage pipes and unleashed more than 317,000 gallons.
And just two weeks ago, the utility experienced yet another spill. Officials blame that 1,000-gallon incident on vandals who filled a sewage pipe with rocks and dirt at a construction site where a manhole had been left covered only by plywood.
Millions at stake
Thiebaut's lawsuit charges both CSU and Colorado Springs with continually violating the federal Clean Water Act, and asks that a federal judge order up to $32,500 in fines for each day of sewage spills, as opposed to the $10,000 maximum fine imposed by the state. Thiebaut says such a penalty probably would amount to millions of dollars.
Thiebaut also wants Pueblo officials to have a say in crafting any enforcement action. He says agreements made between the state and CSU haven't gone far enough.
Douglas Benevento, executive director of the Department of Public Health and Environment, maintains that the department isn't "on Colorado Springs' side."
"We're on the side of stopping these discharges from happening," he says.
Charged with enforcing the federal Clean Water Act, Benevento says his agency's action has been sufficient.
But the Pueblo DA's lawsuit isn't the only one CSU needs to worry about. A similar lawsuit against Colorado Springs has been approved by Colorado's chapter of the Sierra Club and is likely to be filed by the environmental group within the next two months.
"There's no provision in the state water pollution laws for citizen enforcement," says Ross Vincent, a spokesman for the Pueblo-based group that filed its intent to sue earlier this summer. "The victims of pollution are excluded."
"The issue will be whether state action was diligently enforced," says Nancy Stoner, an environmental law expert and director of the Clean Water Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
More bad news
CSU spokesman Steve Berry declined to discuss any specifics about the lawsuit, and City Attorney Patricia Kelly did not return calls seeking comment.
But Berry did say that the state's penalties "were certainly stiff," and added that CSU is looking into purchasing new locking manholes. The utility recently unveiled a new program that offers a $5,000 reward for any tips leading to the arrest of sewage pipe vandals.
As for the larger issue of uncontrolled flooding swamping Fountain Creek, Berry says the lawsuits are counterproductive.
"Every dollar that's spent on that lawsuit is something that could go toward a solution for Fountain Creek."
But any solution is vulnerable without the city government also addressing its aging infrastructure. In fact, a shortage of money in the city budget may lead to more sewage crack-ups.
In the race to plug an estimated $9 million shortfall in next year's budget, administrators announced a painful cut to the Springs' woeful flood control system.
The city plans to slash $2.6 million from its emergency road and drain repair budget, even as it faces a $300 million backlog in storm system repairs.
"It doesn't make me feel good that we're cutting money out [from storm system repairs]," says City Councilman Richard Skorman.
No big-picture approach
The budget cuts will postpone three major repairs that could help prevent bridges and sewage pipes from washing out. It also puts Council under the gun to approve a "storm water enterprise" that would collect around $20 million a year in fees to pay for repairs.
Some environmentalists say Colorado Springs needs to establish big-picture solutions to address sewage spills, crumbling storm water infrastructure and rapidly sprawling growth that sending more runoff and sediment down Fountain Creek.
"The more we build, the more storm water runoff," says local author and Sierra Club activist John Stansfield. "The more violence and disruption downstream, the more pollution in the Arkansas River we generate."
-- Dan Wilcock