Federal environmental regulators have sued the city of Rockford, continuing the process of bringing the water treatment system in Illinois' third largest city into compliance with federal water laws.
The Environmental Protection Agency filed suit Oct. 8 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Rockford, asserting the city's water treatment system remains non-compliant with the federal Clean Water Act.
Patrick Hayes, Rockford's legal director, said the lawsuit is the latest step in a years-long process involving the EPA and the city to get to this point.
Hayes said the city was issued a permit as a medium sized Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System – or MS4, for short – in 1996. Between 1996 and the issue of the city’s second MS4 permit in 2004, Hayes said the city submitted annual reports to the state of Illinois and didn’t receive any citations of violations through the Clean Water Act. It was not until 2007, when a nationwide audit by the EPA found Rockford was not in compliance with many of the Act’s regulations.
According to Hayes, the lack of compliance was accidental. Rockford, he said, is the only medium sized MS4 in Illinois.
“How we became deficient was that we never fully understood the requirements of a medium sized MS4,” Hayes said. “The state, I think, had the same gap.”
In 2009, after a number of records were sent back and forth between Rockford and the EPA, Hayes said the federal government presented city leaders with the challenge to become compliant, and stated the lack of compliance required them to issue a complaint and consent decree.
“Since 2009, we’ve been negotiating that consent decree and exchanging technical assistance matters back and forth between the federal government, the state of Illinois and the city, to establish a fully compliant medium sized community MS4 system,” Haynes said.
Under that consent decree, the city must pay a penalty of $329,000 that reflects the long period of lack of compliance, according to Haynes. The penalty was agreed upon between the federal government and the Rockford's elected city officials, he said.
“As penalties go, it’s substantial, but it’s not as large as many of the penalties the government issues,” Haynes said. “I think that’s testimony to our openness with the federal and state government, and our activities in assembling a compliant plan since that audit in 2007.”
Being in compliance with the Clean Water Act will cost the Rockford – Illinois’ third largest city – about $5.5 million a year, according to Haynes.
Haynes said the City is currently in compliance with the Act, but it comes at a cost to other portions of city government.
“I think it is an onerous burden on local municipalities, for which there is no funding,” he said. “We are reallocating resources from what we’d otherwise devote to law enforcement, fire response and street maintenance.”
Haynes said in the next two months, the city of Rockford and the EPA will enter into the consent decree, to ensure the city’s compliance going forward. The consent decree will be lodged in the federal register.