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Springs Utilities hit with $127,004 in fines

By: PAM ZUBECK THE GAZETTE
January 4, 2007
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A year after being hit with a record fine and being placed under a state-mandated order to upgrade its sewer system, Colorado Springs Utilities was slapped in December with $127,004 in fines for spills dating to 2000.
A $65,542 fine penalizes the city for 13 spills totaling 46,283 gallons of sewage in five creeks or tributaries that happened between July 5 and Nov. 22, 2006. A separate $61,462 fine punishes the city for 22 releases of 3.1 million gallons of nonpotable water from October 2000 through Nov. 17, 2006. Nonpotable water has been treated but not to a degree it can be legally channeled into waterways. Nonpotable water contains chlorine and fecal coliform bacteria, considered pollutants under the law. The discharges sent nonpotable water, normally used for golf course and park irrigation, into Fountain Creek, Monument Creek and Shooks Run. The largest, 2.2 million gallons, happened July 10, 2002, because of a valve problem at the Las Vegas Street wastewater treatment facility. Springs Utilities spokesman Steve Berry said the reclaimed water fine is thought to be the first of its kind in the state. State officials could not be reached late Wednesday to verify that and comment further. Berry said the city will not dispute the fines. He said, however, past spills and a pending proposal to pipe water from Pueblo Reservoir has placed Springs Utilities under the microscope. “We take responsibility for our system,” he said. “But we are magnified in the state right now.” In late 2005, the city was fined $100,000 and placed under a compliance order to improve its system after 62 releases totaling 2.9 million gallons were recorded between 2001 and 2005. The utility was fined another $10,000 in January 2006 for a separate spill. The city also has been sued in federal court by the 10th Judicial District attorney and Sierra Club. The lawsuit accuses the city of negligence and claims the state health department has done an inadequate job of enforcing the Clean Water Act in Colorado. The newest orders, issued last month, come as Springs Utilities tries to comply with work orders that cost ratepayers $29.7 million last year and will cost another $35.5 million this year. “It’s always discouraging because, hopefully, it doesn’t get lost that we’re among the region’s, if not the state’s, leaders for investment in our system,” Berry said. Last year, the city secured 2,500 manholes, fixed creek crossings and evaluated pipes under the state work order. This year, the utility will complete a recovery dam on Fountain Creek, make the creek-crossing improvements permanent and work on the Las Vegas plant. The city began improving its 1,500-mile pipeline system — the largest in the state under a single permit — in 2000. But the state’s compliance order forced the work to be reprioritized. Stabilizing pipes at creek crossings moved to the top of the list. Berry said 131 major crossings of five creeks — Monument, Fountain, Sand, Cottonwood and Shooks Run — were evaluated and 20 repaired. Of 238 minor crossings, 40 were reinforced. This year, the city will make 15 of the 20 major crossing repairs permanent, Berry said. There were no spills during a mid-July deluge, whereas a heavy rain the previous year caused pipes to break and spill 318,000 gallons of sewage into Sand Creek. Utilities also has created a response team equipped to start recovery efforts quickly. Last year, the city inspected 35 miles of pipe 10 inches in diameter and larger and rehabilitated seven miles of it. That work continues this year, along with a project designed to sideline sewage spilled into Fountain Creek and recycle it through the sewage treatment plant. Started last year, the project will be completed this summer at a cost of $10.5 million. The work is funded with rates, which went up by 20 percent last year and another 9 percent as of Monday. Together, the rate increases generate roughly $11.8 million annually. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0238 or pam.zubeck@gazette.com
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