River issues prompt TCEQ investigation
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
In March, LaWann Tull began seeing what she considered unusual and extensive algae growth in the South San Gabriel River in the area where her property is located.
“We live on the river, and the river started getting the lime green, thick matter that was increasing in size by the day,” Tull said.
Walking the river to determine where the algae growth began, Tull said she and some neighbors found that it began within “60 yards of the outfall for the (Liberty Hill wastewater treatment) plant.”
Living on 2.58 acres on the river in the Gabriels Overlook subdivision, downstream from the City of Liberty Hill’s wastewater treatment plant, Tull called the City of Liberty Hill April 19 and spoke to Public Works Director Wayne Bonnet. She said she was not satisfied with the answer and decided the next week to file a complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
She claims since her original contact with the City, she has sent “countless” e-mails to Bonnet, two city council members, the city administrator and multiple media outlets, including The Independent, and has received no response. Outside of receiving the recently completed report, Tull has not heard from TCEQ either.
Bonnet said he preferred not to comment specifically on the alleged violations, saying the matter has been turned over to the engineers involved with the new wastewater plant.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Bonnet said. “We just spent this money on the new plant, and our lab samples are looking better and better each day. We’re well within permit and we are going to continue to run that way and keep the river as clean as possible.”
Following an investigation launched in early May, TCEQ completed and issued its investigative report in response to the initial allegations. The 13-page report dated July 2, outlines the scope of the investigation and its findings, spelling out six alleged violations.
The violations include:
• failed to prevent the unauthorized discharge of wastewater sludge
• failed to composite effluent samples (the city allegedly collected grab samples rather than composite samples)
• failure to obtain authorization to discharge stormwater.
• failed to provide a permanent stairway for access to equipment and work areas at the wastewater plant.
• failed to properly operate and maintain the facility and all of its systems.
• failed to properly file the proper notice of completion of the plant.
In the report, investigator Christopher Bost said that when he evaluated the outfall location for the treatment plant, the river appeared clear further upstream of the outfall. He wrote that algae began forming about 60 feet upstream from the outfall and was also observed downstream. He also reported seeing wastewater solids in the river at that point.
Bost also reported that concentration of phosphorous, nitrate/nitrite, total Kjeldahl nitrogen and total nitrogen, increased as samples were taken closer to the outfall from each of three sample points along the river.
Samples were taken from Gabriels Overlook, just upstream from the Ronald Reagan Bridge, and upstream of County Road 266.
In the alleged violation regarding the failure to prevent the unauthorized discharge of wastewater sludge, the report noted that “the unauthorized discharge resulted in the release of excessive nutrients into the river, surface waters not being maintained in an aesthetically attractive condition and the excessive growth of aquatic vegetation.”
“Wastewater treatment plants are required to dispose of sewage sludge material in accordance with TCEQ regulations, which includes beneficial reuse or landfill disposal,” said Brian McGovern with TCEQ. “The discharge of sewage sludge into waters in the state is not authorized. The discharge of sewage sludge has the potential to degrade water quality by reducing instream dissolved oxygen concentrations, disrupting the aquatic ecosystem (impeding sunlight, settling on aquatic organisms, etc.) and the potential release of pollutants which may exceed Texas Surface Water Quality Standards.”
The report states that samples taken by investigators at the wastewater plant were compliant with permit limits.
The TCEQ would not respond to further questions from The Independent on Wednesday.
“Based on the findings of a May 2018 investigation, the City of Liberty Hill was referred to the TCEQ Enforcement Division on July 2,” McGovern said. “The enforcement case is currently under development. It is expected that within 60 days, TCEQ Enforcement Division staff will mail a proposed agreed order with corrective action requirements and an assessed penalty to the City of Liberty Hill to address the alleged violations.”
The City has an opportunity to respond to the alleged violations spelled out in the report.
McGovern said the City and TCEQ will have 60 days from the date of the letter transmitting the proposed agreed order to settle the matter, adding that because the “matter has been referred for enforcement and is currently under development and may be subject to future litigation, the TCEQ cannot comment further on the case.”
Per TCEQ rules, “alleged violators may be sent either a Notice of Violation, or a Notice of Enforcement, depending on the severity of the violation in accordance with the TCEQ’s Enforcement Initiation Criteria. In either case, the respondent would be required to undertake corrective action necessary to resolve the violation. When violations are serious enough to warrant formal enforcement action, the TCEQ is authorized to enforce correction of the violations and to seek penalties to deter future noncompliance. Proposed administrative penalties are calculated in accordance with the Commission’s Penalty Policy.”
While the report included recommended corrective action for each alleged violation, no word has been given by TCEQ or Liberty Hill exactly what comes next in the process for this investigation.
“You can see from the report there are lots of violations, but I don’t understand what the fix is and no one in Liberty Hill will tell me,” Tull said. “I have to wonder if the legality of it is they are thinking there will be some class action lawsuits come from it. I don’t know why all the silence.”
She emphasized she is not trying to cause a problem for the city, but that she believes something must be done to address the issue.
“I’m not here to bash Liberty Hill,” Tull said. “But what’s wrong with the river isn’t wrong up-river from that plant. It’s wrong from the place where they put the discharge into the river and TCEQ confirmed it.”