— By CHRISTIN COYNE
WILLOW PARK – A recent Texas Commission on Environmental Quality enforcement order against the City of Willow Park took center stage last week as one council member accused top city leaders of hiding the issue from city council members.
However, the city administrator says, the order, which lays out more than $44,000 in fines to be paid over three years, was not finalized until Sept. 25 and required no city council action.
The council at its next meeting is expected to consider a contract finalizing a lift station replacement project that would help address ongoing issues at the city’s wastewater treatment plant that have incurred enforcement from TCEQ in the past, according to city administrator Matt Shaffstall.
After mentions of TCEQ enforcement action against the city during two recent city council budget discussions, including on Sept. 24 when council member Bernard Suchocki said he learned about the TCEQ fines, Suchocki accused Shaffstall Tuesday night of attempting to hide the issue from council members.
The council and public was notified of the fines in the budget, according to Shaffstall, who said he and the mayor were notified in May of the penalties and spent months attempting to appeal and to get into a program that would allow the city to use the fines for the plant.
During a presentation Tuesday night by Public Works Superintendent Bill Osborn on how the wastewater treatment plant operates, Suchocki began questioning Osborn about the recent TCEQ order.
“What is it you know about these violations?” Suchocki asked.
“I was asked not to talk about that,” Osborn said.
Shaffstall told Suchocki that there was another item on the agenda regarding the violations and he would be glad to go through those issues at that time.
“When did these violations occur?” Suchocki asked Osborn, continuing to question the city employee about when the violations occurred and who was notified.
“Honestly, I’m very uncomfortable discussing this right now,” Osborn said. “I’m afraid for my job. I’m not a contract employee.”
“You don’t have to worry about your job,” Suchocki said. “Just be honest with us.”
“I’ve always been honest with you,” Osborn said.
“Why are you worried about your job?” Suchocki asked.
“Because I’ve never been up here before,” Osborn said.
Under further questioning by Suchocki, Osborn said he was told not to discuss and said he had copies of TCEQ documents.
“I’m asking you to preserve those, all those copies in your desk, and I want you to produce those at a later time,” Suchocki said.
“Do you have any questions about how the sewer plant works?” Osborn asked, drawing a laugh from Suchocki.
The city council later went into executive session with the city attorney before discussing in public the related agenda item.
“We had to drag it out of you at the last meeting,” Suchocki told Shaffstall of his questions about the TCEQ fines at a Sept. 24 budget meeting. The possibility of TCEQ fines were also mentioned in a prior city council budget discussion.
“So you knew about this back in May and you knew they were serious and, yet, you didn’t bring them forward [to city council],” Suchocki said. “They would never have been disclosed had I not asked those questions about fines and penalties.”
“Well, look, I think this is a serious problem,” Suchocki said. “And not only did you fail to inform the city council of these violations, which you are required to do under the ordinance, I think there is reason to believe you have purposely tried to avoid that being divulged to the city council. I think there is evidence that says you tried to hide it.”
Suchocki attempted to make a motion that the city council convene as a fact-finding body within the next 10 days and allow for testimony by employees regarding “alleged involvement in keeping this matter quiet.”
The mayor noted that the agenda item was a discussion item only, so no action could be taken.
Shaffstall said the TCEQ fines were addressed in the wastewater expenses section of the proposed budget released Aug. 1 with a explanatory footnote attached to the fines and penalties line item stating, “given the age [of] the treatment plant and the latest TCEQ inspection, the city anticipates entering into a remediation program.”
“It wasn’t hidden in a budget – it’s in a budget,” Shaffstall said. “Our budget document is incredibly transparent.”There were three main issues noted by TCEQ, Shaffstall said, including a reporting issue from June through December of 2012.
Staff was not reporting fully to TCEQ as regulations required, he said, adding that the issue has been resolved with training of city staff by TCEQ.
The second issue was a backup, which was self-reported, as required, Shaffstall said.
During a resulting inspection, TCEQ ran a series of tests and found that effluent released was too strong.
One of the issues affecting the quality of effluence is the potency of what is coming into the plant, according to Shaffstall, who said the current design of some of the wastewater lift stations holds sewage too long, sending the sewage to the plant too strong and requiring the plant to work much harder.
Another issue is requirement for the plant to have sewage arriving consistently, according to Shaffstall.
Though there is always a level of risk in the wastewater treatment business, such as when the city gets a large rain, the lift station upgrades should help address the ongoing effluence-quality issue, according to Shaffstall.
The city selected an engineer for the lift station upgrade project in Spring 2011 and accepted bids on the project earlier this year, according to Shaffstall.
A contract with North Texas Contracting to complete the work for no more than $1,125,168 was originally scheduled to be on city council’s the agenda Oct. 15 but was rescheduled for Oct. 22, which would allow for a Dec. 1 start date.
“This process is long overdue,” Shaffstall said, adding that he is doing his best to get it under construction and that the project should be completed within six months after that begins.
The budget also includes a couple of capital improvements to address issues, as well, council was told.
“The other issues about who knew what when, why people didn’t know, under city attorney advisement, is not relevant to the conversation,” Shaffstall said.
“Well, it is relevant to the conversation,” Suchocki said.
The recent order isn’t the first time TCEQ has taken enforcement action against the city regarding the wastewater treatment plant.
In January of 2012, the Democrat reported that the city had paid nearly $22,000 in fines and received more than 30 notices of violations since 2007.
After a June 2011 inspection showed the quality of water discharged into a nearby creek did not meet compliance standards on multiple occasions, the city entered into its third agreed order assessing penalties, though the fines were lowered because nearly all violations were self-reported.
A copy of the most recent TCEQ order is available on the city’s website under the public works section.