Sewage settlement talks break down
A settlement hearing between state officials and defendants in the Kings Beach sewage spill will be continued to October after discussions broke down Wednesday.
Lawyers for two lakeside property owners, marine contractor Pacific Built Inc., the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the North Tahoe Public Utility District initially requested that the board meeting be delayed to conduct two backroom negotiations on Wednesday.
A proposed settlement, however, failed in closed-door discussions and the lawyers for the defendants asked that the meeting be continued to October. The settlement would have scuttled proposed fines from the state water board and the lawsuit filed by the North Tahoe Public Utility District, according to the parties.
The contractor and two lakefront property owners face a $325,000 fine in the July 2005 spill that dumped an estimated 56,000 gallons of raw sewage into Lake Tahoe.
The contractor was building a pier along the shared property line of the homes when the sewer line was punctured.
The settlement involved a piece of equipment that was to be purchased by the defendants and used by the North Tahoe Public Utility District and be available to all the other public utility districts in the area, said Bruce Shaffer, attorney for marine contractor Pacific Built Inc.
The exact nature of the settlement, what equipment was to be purchased and other details, were not released because of confidentiality agreements between the parties.
But Lahontan officials were hopeful that a settlement could still be reached.
“We believe there is a real possibility that we can come up with a project that can benefit Lake Tahoe,” said Steven Blum, state water board senior counsel.
Why the settlement failed before reaching the board was unclear, although Neil Eskind, attorney for the North Tahoe Public Utility District, said the agency was seeking an agreement that would address the estimated $248,000 the district spent in cleaning up the spill.
“The North Tahoe Public Utility District has a quarter of a million dollars in hard cash costs, in out-of-pocket expenses to clean up [the spill],” Eskind said.
Although the board agreed to continue the hearing, with board member John Brissenden voting against the motion, the members were worried that lawyers would negotiate a settlement that would not meet with approval from the board.
“To the dischargers and the prosecution team ” you don’t know what target you are shooting at,” said Amy Horne, the chairwoman of the board.
Board member Jim Chapman was also worried about the continued, covert negotiations on a settlement without the public being able to comment on the progress of the case.
“The one element that is left out of this discussion is the public at large and their ability to comment,” said Chapman. “I think the public interest also needs to be protected.”
The hearing will be heard at the October meeting of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. No new evidence can be submitted in the case between now and the hearing, according to the counsel for the water board.
While the contractor and the property owners are being held responsible for the spill, the final Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board report notes that public agencies around the lake did not notify the either of the parties of the sewer line during the permitting of the pier project.
“The water board is concerned that many public agencies were on notice that there was a sewer force main buried in the Lake Tahoe shoreline in the area of the project,” said the water board report. “However, when the property owners obtained permits from the water board, TRPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the record does not indicate that any of these agencies notified the property owners that a sewer force main could be located in the shorezone.”
The report also notes that the contractor did not dial the underground service alert number before digging, which should have informed them of the sewer main.
– July 19, 2005- Pacific Built Inc. punctures a 14-inch sewer main, causing sewage to spill on the sand and water in Kings Beach. Initial estimates from public agencies put the sewage spill quantity at 120,000 gallons. The contractor was working on building a pier for property owners Hans and Margaret Coffeng and C. Geoffrey and Christine Davis.
– December 14, 2005- the water board propses a fine of $700,000 for the spill.
– May 11, 2006- the water board revises the estimate of the spill to 56,000 gallons and reduces the proposed fine to $325,000.
– July 26, 2006- hearing is continued to October after settlement talks fail to reach a compromise.
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