Wichita City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to pay a $243,195 state fine for a sewage release last year that killed 850 fish because of equipment failure and employee error.
But Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner criticized the fine as excessive, saying the city deserves a break from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Meitzner’s remarks were part of a wide-ranging debate on the May 25, 2012, fish kill in south Wichita that cost two public works employees their jobs and revealed that the city had maintenance problems with its sewer treatment plants.
The city has been fined almost $700,000 by KDHE for the leak, which occurred at Plant 2, the city’s oldest facility at 2305 E. 57th St. South, best known, as Mayor Carl Brewer put it Tuesday, for “all the smell complaints we get.” However, the state is allowing the civil part of the fine – $455,000 – to be applied to a citywide study of deferred sewer maintenance. The remaining fine will be paid out of the public works operating budget.
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“I’m a little bit disturbed about all this,” Meitzner said. “I don’t want to beat a dead fish on this, but the governor has embraced you and our staff on the drought and water issues. As it relates to water, Wichita has taken on a leadership role on this deal. … To be isolated in the penalty mode isn’t real comfortable for me.
“I don’t want to say we shouldn’t pay a fine. But I lean more toward can we have a little bit more of the apple and the negotiating round.”
Alan King, the city’s public works director — who delivered a lengthy video on how the sewage release happened — said the city got a good deal from the state for a fish kill triggered in part by the release of the partially treated sewage.
“I think we’ve negotiated this as far as we can,” King said, referencing the money the state is returning for the deferred maintenance study.
Brewer told King the south Wichita plant should be “put under a microscope” and employees thoroughly schooled on maintenance.
“I think you know by now that the council is disturbed over this issue, because of the money involved and because of the environmental issues involved,” he said.
King said the $455,000 fine will be used to pay almost all of a $460,000 consultant study of Plant 2 that includes training and monitoring.
In addition, the city has enhanced its monitoring of Arkansas River water downstream from the plant and will do the same around its other sewage facilities.
King walked the council through a photo tour of the accident, which began when an underwater gate seal rotted away without notice by city employees. At the same time, river flows were historically low due to the drought, he said, and the Lincoln Street Dam had been raised for the Wichita River Festival, contributing to the fish kill..
King said during his council presentation that two employees “were terminated for cause” in the incident.
Council member Jeff Longwell sought to clarify that.
“You’re telling us this was more than a gate failure, that human error entered into the equation?” he asked.
“I don’t know how much I can say about that,” King said, turning to City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf.
“If you want details, we’re going to have to go into executive session,” the city attorney said.
“I get that,” Longwell said. “I just want to make sure I heard him correctly.”
The equipment failure wasn’t a surprise to city officials, King and City Manager Robert Layton said. The city has put $5.5 million in rate money away for repair and replacements in the sewer system, and expects to put about the same away in 2014, while financing a broader risk assessment of the citywide system.
“We had begun planning the assessment a couple of years ago,” King said. “We had been looking at different approaches to conduct some sort of assessment.
“If we’re going to invest large sums of money in the system, we want to have a sense of how we prioritize those repairs and replacements.”