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EPA fines Crawfordsville over Sugar Creek pollution

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Crawfordsville will pay $96,000 in environmental fines because a city-owned wastewater treatment plant was putting too much copper into a creek, according to a federal court filing in Indianapolis.

The fine, which is part of a settlement filed Dec. 24, wraps up a federal investigation spurred from years of problems at the facility. The city already made several changes at the plant, including handing over management to a private contractor.

The plant sits 300 feet upstream from the popular fishing and canoeing destination Sugar Creek, which runs 93 miles through central Indiana, including two state parks. The city, for years, was not complying with its environmental permits and was not adhering to previous warnings, regulators say.
 
The fines are relatively steep by environmental regulators’ standards. But Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton spoke of them with a sense of relief because of the extent of problems.

“The penalty could have been millions and millions of dollars,” Barton said. “The fact that we ended up where we are is a very good sign that we’re doing the right things [today].”

On “numerous occasions,” the facility put more copper in the water than what its environmental permits allowed, according to the filing with the U.S. District Court of Southern Indiana.

The city did not “maintain in good working order and efficiently operate” the facility in order to minimize pollution, documents say. After a 2009 visit, inspectors noted the lack of a proper filter, 6 to 12 inches of solids at the bottom of a disinfection chamber, algae-covered equipment, and other issues.

The plant also did not adequately monitor or record pollution, court documents say.

Permits mandate the facility cannot intentionally take samples and test for copper at certain times simply to avoid showing pollution levels that would otherwise be higher at other times.

Staff, however, collected samples on Sundays, when the plant handled less sewage because most businesses were closed and students at nearby Wabash College were gone, the filing says.

Since March 2007, staff monitored levels of E. coli, ammonia-nitrogen and other health risks five days per week, not seven like they were supposed to, the filing says.

The EPA had prodded the city to fix issues at the plant since the 1990s, city officials told IBJ.

Barton, who learned about the investigation about two months after taking office in 2012, fired some of the employees. The city hired an engineering firm and a management firm to bring the plant into compliance and run it.

Most of the changes have involved operations and processes, with no need for major capital expenses, Barton said.

The city will pay the $96,000 fine by drawing from the utility’s capital budget. The city will not use customer rates to pay the penalty, he said.

Sugar Creek originates north of Indianapolis in Tipton County and runs southwest through parts of Boone County, Montgomery County, Shades State Park and Turkey Run State Park before merging with the Wabash River near Montezuma in Parke County. Crawfordsville is the only large community along the creek.

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