Our view: Municipalities not to blame for these fines

May 20th, 2017 11:55 am

It’s easy to blame administrators in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston for tax money wasted paying federal fines for failing to meet mandates spelled out years ago. The two municipalities have to fork over a combined $37,000 for non-compliance related to Environmental Protection Agency stormwater management rules.

It seems utterly avoidable. The question becomes obvious: Why didn’t they just do what had to be done?

It’s easy to blame them, but it’s wrong.

This is a problem as old as the sewer and storm lines running beneath Wilkes-Barre, Kingston and pretty much any other municipality — especially those along the Susquehanna River.

The issue: Stopping stuff other than water from getting into waterways.

For years this was about industrial waste: Stopping factories along rivers and creeks from using them like a constantly-running toilet that quickly flushes any waste, however toxic, out of site and thus out of mind.

Those problems have been largely mitigated because, frankly, they were the easiest ones to go after. There was a single point of discharge (the factory), a single entity to legally go after (the company running the factory) and usually a single solution (stop discharging toxic stuff into the water).

The next big problem was considerably more diffuse: Combined sewer outfalls. These are points along a waterway where storm water lines drain, which is fine, but where sewage also sometimes gets into the river, usually because municipalities originally didn’t separate storm water and sewer lines. If the two sources combined went to a treatment plant, heavy rains could overwhelm the system. The solution was and still often is to divert some of it straight to a river.

Municipalities have been eliminating outfalls in dribs and drabs, usually when grant money or low-interest loans became available from the federal government.

But even when you fix these first two problems and nothing but storm water enters rivers and streams, chemicals and pollutants still reach the rivers: motor oil some backyard mechanic dumped in a street drain, fertilizers spread by farmers on land near waterways, salts and chemicals just washed from the surface of roofs, roads and sidewalks.

Stopping these pollutants from reaching a river takes considerable work, and money. The problem is not that Wilkes-Barre, Kingston and other municipalities don’t want to stop them, it’s that they need serious help to do it — and that they have more urgent things on their agendas, things that very directly impact residents. You know, potholes, damaged catch basins, crumbling bridges.

Kingston Administrator Paul Keating put it bluntly, calling the rules the municipalities were fined for violating “the most comprehensive unfunded federal mandate we have been compelled to deal with.”

Clean water is a literal matter of life or death. Rules that assure clean water are essential. Those who impose such rules without providing clear guidelines — and money — to meet them are the ones to blame here.

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