Oregon environmental regulators have fined the Eugene-Springfield sewage treatment agency $7,800 for a sewage spill during the February ice storm.

About 54,000 gallons of treated sewage overflowed into a drainage ditch at the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission biosolids treatment facility north of Eugene, off Awbrey Lane.

The spill happened on Feb. 8-9, after a severe ice storm hit the southern Willamette Valley and caused widespread power outages.

The state Department of Environmental Quality imposed the penalty, saying that MWMC was negligent because it did not take steps to avoid the spill during the outage.

The spill polluted a drainage ditch that carries water to Flat Creek, about 5Â 1/2 miles away.

State law classifies the ditch as "waters of the state," a DEQ statement said. Flat Creek is a tributary of the Willamette River.

The sewage contained "pollutants and pathogens that can harm aquatic life, contaminate drinking water and impair recreational, commercial and agricultural uses of Oregon's water," the DEQ said. The sewage discharge posed a "significant threat to public health and the environment."

MWMC is a collaboration of Eugene and Springfield governments. The agency's main sewage treatment plant is on River Avenue in north Eugene. The plant sends a portion of its treated sewage by an 8-inch diameter pipe to the biosolids facility a few miles north, near Highway 99 and the Fiddler's Green Golf Course.

The facility uses some of the sewage to irrigate thousands of poplar trees specifically planted on the site to consume the effluent, which is 98 percent water.

On the morning of Feb. 8, after a couple of days of snow, freezing rain and sleet wreaked havoc in the Eugene-Springfield metro area and surrounding rural communities by breaking tree branches and downing power lines.

During the weekend, the River Avenue plant sent 221,000 gallons of treated sewage to the biosolids facility, which had lost electricity. No employees were at the facility because it was the weekend.

The power outage caused a pressure relief valve to stay open, releasing more than 100,000 gallons of treated sewage sludge into an underground pit, or wet well, MWMC officials said. About half of that -- 54,000 gallons -- overflowed into the drainage ditch.

"This was the first spill of its kind at the bisolids plant," said Matt Stouder, MWMC general manager.

Facility employees saw the spill when they returned to work on Monday, he said. The employees immediately called the DEQ and posted signs at the edge of the biosolids property to inform neighbors, Stouder said.

"They tested the area and cleaned up the ditch as best they could," he said.

The DEQ calculates penalties based on such factors as the severity of the environmental problem, how long it lasted, the history of the responsible party, and whether those responsible took "reasonable care to avoid a foreseeable risk that a violation could occur."

For the MWMC fine, DEQ assessed a base penalty of $6,000 for a "moderate magnitude violation."

DEQ said it added $1,800 to that amount for two other reasons: The spill took place over two days, and the River Avenue wastewater plant personnel pumped the sewage to the unstaffed biosolids facility during a power outage.

"If the wastewater treatment facility staff had contacted staff at the biosolids management facility to check that all of the system components would function properly in a power outage, monitored the pumping to ensure that no overflows occurred, or waited to pump the sludge until the power was restored, this violation could have been avoided," the statement said.

Randy Gray, the manager of the biosolids facility, said the ice storm and power outages created problems throughout the regional sewage system, and led to confusion at the River Avenue plant.

"There were people going every which way," and the power outage at the biosolids facility "slipped through the cracks," he said.

Since then, MWMC has developed communication procedures to prevent the same problem from occurring if another power outage happens on a weekend, Gray said.

MWMC has until May 18 to decide whether it will appeal the fine.

DEQ allows the fines to be donated to environmental projects, said Stouder, MWMC's general manager.

"We could apply the money to a local environmental project," he said. "That is something we are discussing."

Follow Ed on Twitter @edwardrusso . Email ed.russo@registerguard.com .

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