Fort Smith officials are seeing the first signs of a more willing partner in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the direction of President Donald Trump appointee and former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
City Administrator Carl Geffken revealed Tuesday’s (April 11) that the agency has agreed to waive $120,900 in stipulated penalties for the city’s 2015 and partial 2016 sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs).
Geffken had filed a formal dispute resolution against the EPA around Feb. 14, he told Talk Business & Politics on Feb. 23. The response came on Monday afternoon (April 10), Geffken said, signaling a new mindset than what the city of Fort Smith observed during the Obama administration when the federal consent decree was initially signed.
“The overflows have been waived without prejudice, so we do not have any stipulated penalties to pay,” Geffken said Tuesday at the end of the Board of Director’s study session. “We’re very happy for that, and we thank the EPA and the DOJ as well for doing that. As we move forward, we still have issues related to affordability, but we’re very pleased with this report, and the decision reflects the EPA’s recognition of the city’s full compliance with our 2015 federal consent decree and our aggressive rate increases to implement the decree. We appreciate their consideration of our work and look forward to working with them further.”
Fort Smith City Director George Catsavis asked if the “changes in Washington meant we’re sort of in the driver’s seat on this?” Geffken said he wouldn’t say that because “the U.S. DOJ firmly has their foot on the gas and the brake, but by working with them and explaining our positions, there has been a willingness to work with municipalities and cities since there are so many of them in our position where we do need to seek relief, not from the entire consent decree, but just from the timeline.”
Director Don Hutchings asked if the new administration had anything to do with the decision, to which Geffken said, “Probably.”
“There’s administrator Pruitt and his comments that have been made as well as President Trump’s. But at this point, we’re not wanting to overplay our hand. We just want to say, ‘Thank you.'”
The President’s controversial pick to head the agency is a climate change denier and has sued the agency 14 times. He was confirmed in a 52-46 vote by the Senate that ran along mostly partisan lines on Feb. 17. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine was the only Republican to vote against while Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota were the only yes votes on the Democratic side.
Previous comments by Myron Ebell, Trump’s transition team leader, indicated a possible $1 billion budget reduction to the EPA in year one/term one, while the President has blasted Obama-era definitions applied to the “Waters of the United States” rule, which has been a source of frustration for the city and its 100-year-old utility system.
As for Geffken’s reference to “affordability issues that still exist,” the city’s sewer rates are now at 2.2% of median household income (MHI). Generally, 1.2%-1.6% is the range for “normal.” Furthermore, from 2014 to 2017, sewer rates have risen from an average of $18.10 to just under $48 per month, a 165% climb.
A history of how the estimated $480 million federal consent decree against the city for years-long violations of the Clean Water Act came to be is available at this link.