Help sought from Attorney General regarding wastewater pollution into Monongahela River |
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Stephen Huba

Two county district attorneys have referred their concerns over pollution to the Monongahela River to the state Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.

Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone and Fayette County District Attorney Richard Bower recently discussed the matter with Chief Deputy Attorney General Rebecca Franz, who is with the Environmental Crimes Section.

“They have sufficient staff and expertise to do it,” Vittone said. “We’re still involved to a limited extent with the injunction.”

The request for assistance from the state followed the issuance of a preliminary injunction May 17 designed to prevent leachate from reaching the Monongahela River. The state Department of Environmental Protection defines leachate as any liquid that comes in contact with waste.

The district attorneys asked for the injunction — now extended to 90 days — after learning that the Municipal Authority of Belle Vernon’s sewage treatment plant would no longer accept leachate from the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in Rostraver.

The municipal authority accepted leachate from the landfill via pipeline but recently became concerned it could no longer treat the leachate and stay in compliance with its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, permit.

The municipal authority board voted to terminate its contract with the landfill, effective Saturday , and no longer accept the leachate after testing revealed it contained chemicals that can potentially cause cancer.

The board received legal advice that continued acceptance of discharges from the landfill could expose the municipal authority to liability.

Of particular concern to the district attorneys was an apparent proposal by DEP whereby the landfill would pay any civil penalties for effluent violations at the Belle Vernon plant.

“It was troubling that the DEP had indicated (to the municipal authority) to keep on discharging contaminated water and that the municipal authority should work out a deal for the landfill to pay the fines,” Bower told the Allegheny Front.

DEP Environmental Engineer Manager Donald Leone said in a January email to John Mowry of KLH Engineers, the municipal authority’s engineering consultant, that such an arrangement would “remove liability from Belle Vernon for current and past violations. In turn, Belle Vernon would need to let the landfill stay connected to their system.”

The email went on to say, “Since this is landfill leachate, it will not go away if the landfill closes — so the state has some concerns here in reference to continuity of service for the wastewater.”

A memo from attorney John M. Smith called the DEP solution “not a workable, acceptable or legal solution to combat these ongoing NPDES violations.” It was at Smith’s recommendation that the municipal authority board ended its contract with the landfill.

Although the sewage treatment plant was not in compliance with the ammonia limit in its NPDES permit, DEP said in a statement sent to the Tribune-Review there was no evidence the ammonia concentration was significantly affecting the Mon or source water for downstream drinking water plants.

“Public water systems are required to notify DEP within one hour if they have any issues at their facility, and DEP has received no such notifications related to this matter,” agency spokeswoman Elizabeth Rementer said. “DEP has conducted several inspections of both facilities and has found the Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill in compliance with leachate limitations and waste acceptance requirements in its permit and state regulations.”

In the absence of a significant impact to the Mon, DEP preferred the leachate continue to be treated at the sewage treatment plant rather than be trucked to a treatment facility because trucking brings its own risks to the environment, Rementer said.

Bower and Vittone, however, allege in their complaint that the actions of the municipal authority and the landfill ownership are in “clear violation” of the state’s Clean Streams Law in permitting contaminated water to be introduced into the Mon.

The source of the contaminants is drill cuttings and mud from unconventional drilling operations in southwestern Pennsylvania, according to the complaint.

“These cuttings are buried within the landfill. When rain occurs, water will leach through the cuttings and become contaminated with the chemicals from the cuttings,” the complaint said.

Last spring, the municipal authority noticed discharges into the Mon violated its NPDES permit standards for certain chemicals, including ammonia-nitrogen. The problem was determined to be the content and volume of the leachate, which was overwhelming the municipal authority’s treatment system, according to the complaint.

The NPDES permit allows up to 50,000 gallons of wastewater to be treated per day. The municipal authority was receiving 100,000 to 300,000 gallons per day from the landfill, according to the complaint.

What’s more, the pretreatment plant at the landfill was not effective in reducing ammonia levels in the leachate below 300 parts per million — the maximum limit allowed by the landfill’s contract with the municipal authority, Rementer said.

Municipal authority Superintendent Guy Kruppa took the matter to the landfill ownership and DEP before seeking legal advice.

The landfill has shut off the pipeline and has been trucking the leachate to treatment facilities in Ohio since May 20, Rementer said.

“In good faith, (Westmoreland Sanitary Landfill) decided to shut off the pipe even though we are not in violation of any water quality standards,” landfill spokeswoman Ro Rozier said. “WSL has had zero citations or violations for our leachate quality from the DEP, and the DEP routinely monitors our landfill.”

Rementer said DEP does not consider trucking to be a permissible permanent option for leachate management.

“DEP will continue to work with WSL on its long-term leachate management plans,” she said. “Working with all parties to find a safe and effective solution to address violations is DEP’s priority but can take time to achieve.”

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