Fines loom unless problems are tackled right awayWestport - Clatsop County must upgrade the Westport sewer system or face fines from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The county has learned that the wastewater treatment plant in the small community is out of compliance with state sewer discharge guidelines and must be replaced with a new system.

DEQ has been charging fines of $250 a day and $500 a month against the Westport Sewer District since Oct. 31, but has not yet formally levied them.

County Administrator Scott Derickson said the county hopes to head off the fines by taking quick action to upgrade the plant, although the improvements are likely to mean higher monthly rates for Westport sewer customers.

"I do not think it's likely" the county will be fined, Derickson said. "As long as we make a good faith effort to comply, I think DEQ will be lenient."

The fines, which would be the responsibility of the county to pay, would total $32,500 so far.

The county public works department will hold an informational meeting for district patrons at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 12 at the Westport Community Center, 91177 Westport Ferry Road.

DEQ charges that the sewer plant, built in 1984, is discharging too much chlorine, the principal disinfectant agent, into Westport Slough. The agency wants the district to install a new ultraviolet light system.

The Westport Sewer District, which serves 77 accounts, is a special service district administered by the county. Derickson said the county plans to hire an engineering consultant within the next week to design the new disinfecting system.

Last February, County Engineer Ron Ash signed a stipulated order with DEQ that spelled out what steps the county would take to bring the plant into compliance. Derickson said one of the tasks included hiring an engineer to begin designing the new system - when that task wasn't completed by the deadline, the agency deemed the county out-of-compliance and began tallying the fines.

Hiring an engineer was hampered by several circumstances, the first being the death of the sewer plant operator, Firman Payne, last May, Derickson said. County staff also had a difficult time finding someone who could conduct a specialized portion of the engineering project known as a mixing zone study.

"It does not appear to be through a lack of not trying" that the deadline was missed, he said.

Derickson, who joined the county in November, said he's not aware when DEQ first notified county staff about Westport sewer's compliance problem, although he said it was likely quite some time before last February, when the stipulated order was signed. The agency apparently dealt mostly with the county public works department - the board of commissioners was informed about the compliance problem only recently, he said.

There's been no estimate of the likely cost of the needed upgrades, Derickson said. Though Westport sewer customers will likely have to pay for some of the cost of the upgrade, the county also plans to seek grant funding for the project, he said, and he's confident that some outside funding can be secured.

Stipulated orders spell out what the local government will do to bring a system into compliance with DEQ standards, while also temporarily protecting it from fines or lawsuits from operating an out-of-compliance system. Derickson faced a similar situation at Warrenton, where he was city manager before coming to Clatsop County, when the city was required to sign a stipulated order pledging to make improvements to its aging sewer plant.

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