City of Tyler: EPA strongarms municipalities into consent decrees

Updated: Jan. 18, 2017 at 9:32 PM CST
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TYLER, TX (KLTV) - In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency began to broker a consent decree with the City of Tyler on wastewater overflows from its sewer system. After more than a decade of talks, the EPA and the city reached a deal in November that will result in the city evenly splitting a $563,000 fine between the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

But according to the city, they were already working to solve overflow issues when talks began.

"The system was working in accord with all other systems in the United States for wastewater," Tyler City Manager Ed Broussard said. "This is just part of [the EPA's] mechanism of targeting cities ... as part of a revenue scheme."

He says the EPA isn't as concerned about the overflows, as it is about collecting the fine. That fine must be paid to the EPA and TCEQ within 60 days of a public comment period finishing. The CD is lodged now with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, but is not open for public comment yet.

There were overflows that led the EPA to intervene, but the city says that's part of operating any wastewater management system.

"There are going to be breaks," Tyler Mayor Martin Heines said. "There are going to be tree roots and there are going to be grease backups."

In 2005, the city says it was already working to satisfy an administrative order from the EPA in 1999 to upgrade aging infrastructure. Jim Mathews, the City of Tyler's legal counsel on this issue, says the EPA works regularly with the Department of Justice to sue cities for violations like Tyler's overflows. He says since it's cheaper to settle than to enter into litigation, most cities end up brokering Consent Decrees. San Antonio, Shreveport and Fort Smith, Arkansas have all worked with the EPA to broker similar agreements. But like Tyler, Fort Smith says it was already working to fix sewage problems when the EPA came in.

"We'd already spent well over $200 million to improve the sewer system prior to the consent decree," Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders said.

Sanders says the regulatory agency came into the city several years after they had already been working to prevent blockages and overflows.

Most overflow problems are caused by grease buildup within sewer pipes. Grease is not water soluble and builds up in pipes near heavy restaurant districts, which can lead to overflows. Just as tree roots up end and break through side walks, they do the same to the 690 miles of underground pipes that carry Tyler waste water through its 23 lift station into its two water treatment plants. This leads to blockages and leaks.

"Every other city in the United States has issues with blockages [like this]," Heines said.

In accordance with federal law, the EPA says civil penalties with the government go to the US Treasury General Fund. The money will not be used to improve the city's infrastructure. Likewise, fines paid to TCEQ will not go toward city's waste water system.

"Instead of just wanting to work with us on a day to day basis, they want to sue us," Heines said, "and not work with us."

In anticipation of the fine, the city raised waste water utility rates by 8.5% in October. According to the consent decree, the city will continue to identify problems within its wastewater infrastructure, then fix those problems. The city says its most important action item is to identify part of the system that are prone to frequent backups and overflows, then install cameras to better monitor the areas.

KLTV 7 called the EPA for comment Wednesday morning, but a spokesperson has not returned the request yet.

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