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Salem’s EPA fine drops significantly

SALEM — Settlement of the much-awaited consent decree hanging over the city of Salem regarding phosphorus discharge levels is nearly done, with a previous penalty of $983,000 negotiated down to $50,000.

“We have reached a very amicable agreement,” city Utilities Commission Chairman Bob Hodgson said Thursday.

City council already did its part to finalize the matter by approving a resolution Tuesday authorizing the commission to enter into the consent order with the state for alleged violations levied by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Hodgson said the commission will have to vote to accept the consent order, likely at the next meeting set for 4 p.m. July 21, then the consent order will be filed in Columbiana County Common Pleas Court. Per the agreement, the city Utilities Commission will pay the penalty in two separate payments of $25,000 this year, based on when the document is signed and filed in court.

To bring the wastewater treatment plant on Pennsylvania Avenue into full compliance, the utilities department will solicit bids and complete construction of trickling filter renovations and updates and improvements to sludge treatment and handling, which were already planned as part of the Phase 3 plant upgrade.

The timetable for completing the upgrades is Dec. 1, 2024, but when asked if that’s enough time to get the project done, Hodgson said they negotiated flexibility into the schedule because of probable supply issues.

If the city runs into a situation and can document it, he said the OEPA will still hold the city in compliance.

The permit to install for Phase 3 is being sent to the OEPA and the project is expected to go to bid in the fall.

The phosphorus issue began in 2002 when the OEPA issued a renewal permit to the city which put a more stringent limit on the level of phosphorus the city could discharge into the Middle Fork of Little Beaver Creek from the wastewater treatment plant.

The city appealed the limit to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission, but ERAC upheld the decision of the OEPA. The ruling was appealed again, sent back to ERAC, and ended up in court again, eventually making it to the Ohio Supreme Court. The case was made moot when the OEPA adopted the federal limits for phosphorus discharge.

In a written statement about the path to the settlement, Hodgson gave some of the background, including that the OEPA and Ohio Attorney General’s Office issued a proposed 29-page consent decree to the city in February 2013. The proposal outlined the upgrades and additions to the existing plant that needed to be done and included the large penalty.

The commission chairman at the time, Utilities Superintendent Don Weingart, the assistant superintendent, Burgess and Niple Engineer Bob Schreiner and legal counsel began talking with OEPA personnel and attorneys with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office in 2013 to attempt to resolve the situation.

Those talks continued into this year and finally resulted in the proposed consent decree with a significantly lower penalty.

“Much negotiation has gone into this agreement. Our partner, Fresh Mark, assisted greatly in adding pre-treatment of their discharge to us. We are very appreciative of their assistance and continued partnering with us,” Hodgson read from the statement.

During the city council meeting, Councilman Andrew Null had asked about the source of the phosphorus and Weingart explained how some of it came from industry, but he noted the industry, identified as Fresh Mark, reduced its discharge of phosphorus by installing its own pre-treatment facility. Weingart said the company moved very quickly to reduce the phosphorus after the limit was placed on the city of Salem, in turn helping the city reduce its level.

“You never eliminate it completely, but you bring it down to the limitation,” he said.

The city tests regularly for phosphorus levels and has managed to remain under the required limit. Phase 1 and Phase 2 upgrades have already been completed at the city’s wastewater treatment plant to improve operations.

Councilman Ron Zellers thanked city Law Director Brooke Zellers and Weingart for their efforts in getting the penalty amount down.

In other business, the commission heard updates on the Phase 3 wastewater treatment plant project and Phase 1 water treatment plant improvements, noting the commission will hold a virtual meeting at 1:30 p.m. Monday with agents from the OEPA loaning staff regarding the city’s treatment rehabilitation loan nomination for the water plant project. Members of Benesch Engineering will attend also, along with utilities department staff. No action will be taken, with the meeting strictly informational.

The commission also approved the purchase of a new truck for up to $34,495, asking that distribution general foreman Terry Endsley check to see if the supplier can get a red truck after being told that wasn’t one of the colors available. Red is the color the utilities department uses for most of its vehicles. Endsley said the truck being replaced is rusting out and is 14 years old.

The commission also gave him permission to shop for a new lawn mower for up to $29,000. He was looking at a Steiner, but Hodgson also asked him to look into a Ventrac mower. The mower being replaced is 29 years old, has a lack of power and is blowing oil.

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