When it rained in Kingston, it poured in Wilkes-Barre.
The municipalities have been fined by the federal Environmental Protection Agency for non-compliance of a stormwater management program aimed at improving water quality and reducing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
Wilkes-Barre was hit with a $25,000 penalty and Kingston $12,000 for violations found in audits conducted a decade after receiving permits to discharge stormwater into the Susquehanna River that drains into the bay.
The penalties were reduced through negotiations, but officials criticized the lack of guidance from the EPA on how to comply and the absence of federal money to carry out the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems program.
A message left with the EPA’s spokeswoman in the Philadelphia regional office was not returned Thursday.
The city had other issues to address and compliance was not a priority when it signed on to the program, said Butch Frati, Wilkes-Barre’s director of operations.
“No one was actually taking them seriously,” he said.
Frati, however, acknowledged the city should have heeded the warning of the state Department of Environmental Protection that manages the MS4 program for the EPA.
That’s not to say the city ignored them.
Wilkes-Barre has 3,700 catch basins and many of them were damaged, Frati explained. “That’s what we focused a boatload of money on,” he said.
The EPA conducted audits in 2014 in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston and several other places in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The findings were returned a year later with orders to comply.
“Every community was fined or penalized in some regard,” said Paul Keating, administrator for the borough of Kingston.
“We started in a range of $38,000 to $50,000. We were able to settle ours for $12,000,” Keating said.
He said he notified council this week of the agreed to fine.
Keating was critical of the program, saying its too big for municipalities, large and small, to handle on their own. He estimated Kingston has spent between $30,000 and $50,000 on engineering costs to comply since the audit was completed.
He and Frati said they support the Wyoming Valley Sanitary Authority’s proposal to create a regional stormwater authority for municipalities in its service area to assist with compliance and cost sharing for the next round of MS4 permits in 2018. The authority wants to impose fees to fund compliance projects.
“In my 26 years in local government this is by far and away, this is the most comprehensive unfunded federal mandate we have been compelled to deal with,” Keating said.
The audit found non-compliance in the areas of documentation and public outreach, among other things, he said. The borough has a link on its web site about its MS4 program, but at the time it couldn’t be accessed. “Our link didn’t open amd was an infraction,” Keating said.
“They found that some of our record keeping was shy,” Frati said.
The city has designated Joyce Morrash Zaykowski as its point of contact for compliance. The city’s capital projects program manager has been on the job since February and said the EPA agreed to lower its penalty. “So they weren’t so hard on us,” she said.
The city has been struggling financially and cut park attendant positions and closed the indoor pool at Kistler Elementary School for the summer to save an estimated $40,000.
Still Frati joined with Keating in complaining about the lack of support from the EPA. “We should have been trained on this,” Keating said.
They also took issue with where the fines end up.
“The sad part is it doesn’t go to the EPA. It goes to the U.S. Treasury,” Keating said. That’s like putting it into the general fund budget instead of with the agency that issued the fine so that it could implement its programs, he added.