FORT GAY – Fort Gay residents may have been exposed to drinking water that contained untreated sewage, according to a federal lawsuit filed July 28.
The United States of America and the State of West Virginia, through the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Human Resources, filed the lawsuit against the town of Fort Gay over allegations that untreated sewage and potential contaminants were dumped into a tributary upstream of an intake for drinking water.
Contaminants and raw sewage can be dumped into the river when one of Fort Gay's nine pump stations fails, causing untreated sewage to overflow from the pump station and discharge into the ground, according to the complaint.
At four of the town's nine pump stations, that raw sewage is likely to flow into Mill Creek and from there to the Tug Fork, which lies upstream from Fort Gay Water Works, the suit states.
At three other pump stations, discharges are likely to reach waters that are downstream from the water intake for the Fort Gay Water Works, the complaint says.
In fact, the plaintiffs name at least 11 different instances from Feb. 4, 2007, through Feb. 6 that raw sewage has leaked into Mill Creek or the Big Sandy River because of failures of pump stations or because of line breaks or overflows.
The raw sewage flowing into these waters and possibly into the water supply at the Fort Gay Water Works poses numerous health threats to town residents, the plaintiffs claim.
"Untreated sewage contains viruses and protozoa as well as other parasites," the suit states. "Infection with organisms contained in untreated sewage can cause a number of adverse health effects ranging from minor illnesses such as sore throats and mild gastroenteritis to life-threatening ailments such as cholera, dysentery, infectious hepatitis, and severe gastroenteritis."
About 860 residents of Fort Gay and the surrounding community receive drinking water from the Fort Gay Water Works, according to the complaint.
Since January 2003 until the filing of the lawsuit, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued at least 23 notices of violation to Fort Gay pertaining to its wastewater treatment and conveyance system, the complaint says.
In addition on various dates since October 2002, customers of the Fort Gay Water Works system have frequently been issued boil water notices because of frequent line breaks, lack of proper certified water operator coverage and equipment malfunction, the plaintiffs claim.
During a February inspection of Fort Gay Water Works, the EPA the water intake screen had been removed, rapid mixers in the rapid mixing tank did not work and back-up pumps were missing for raw water pumping, transfer pumping between the coagulation system and the filter and high pressure service pumping, the suit states. In other words, the Fort Gay Water Works may not be capable of rendering water contaminated with untreated sewage safe to drink, even in its peak performance, the complaint says.
By law, Fort Gay Water Works is supposed to sample treated wastewater discharged from its main outfall and to test levels of specified pollutants. However, the plaintiffs claim Fort Gay has never conducted the required tests and has released pollutants into the water.
"On numerous occasions since 2004, Defendant has discharged pollutants, including but not limited to, fecal coliform bacteria, BOD, TSS, total residue chlorine, and ammonia nitrogen, in violation of the effluent limitations authorized in the NPDES permit," the suit states.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has issued the town several orders for compliance, which include an order to submit a proposed corrective action plan, but the town is not complying with all the terms of its water permit, the complaint says.
Judging by the town's past, the problems will continue unless Fort Gay is ordered to immediately take steps to remedy the situation, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring Fort Gay to take all steps necessary to eliminate or minimize the risk to human health that is posed by the discharge of untreated sewage. They are also seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring Fort Gay to come into permanent compliance with the Clean Waters Act and a permanent injunction directing Fort Gay to take all steps necessary to comply with all terms in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.
In addition, they are seeking a permanent injunction ordering Fort Gay to take all steps necessary to come into permanent compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, a judgment for civil penalties, plus costs and other relief the court deems appropriate.
Fort Gay can receive civil penalties of up to $25,000 per day for each day that violations occurred before Jan. 30, 1997; up to $27,500 per day for each violation after Jan. 30, 1997; up to $32,500 per day for each violation after March 15, 2004; and up to $37,500 for each day that a violation occurred after Jan. 12.
The plaintiffs will be represented by John C. Cruden, acting assistant attorney general of the Environment and Natural Resources division; by Daniel S. Smith of the Environmental Enforcement Section of the Environment and Natural Resources division in Washington, D.C.; by Charles T. Miller, assistant United States attorney in Charleston; by Raymond S. Franks II, acting chief of the office of legal services in the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in Charleston; and by Chris Curtis, acting commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health.
U.S. District Court case number: 3:09-855