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Willmar City Council OKs $11,000 settlement for EPA violation in connection with construction of new airport

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has agreed to pay a reduced federal penalty for an alleged environmental violation that local officials say could have been remedied the day the violation was noted five years ago.

The council Monday night voted to pay $11,000 for one violation to the Environmental Protection Agency to settle what could have a penalty of up to $90,000 for seven alleged violations connected with construction of the new airport six years ago.

In 2003, a contract for grading work at the new airport site was awarded. In January 2004, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency noted that a silt fence, which had been erected to prevent soil erosion, was knocked down. MPCA notified EPA. In November 2004, EPA inspected the project and noted similar violations.

Four years later, the grading contractor was notified by EPA that a civil penalty would be charged against the company. In December 2008, the city received a letter from EPA stating a civil penalty would be charged to the city as well.

Between December and now, city staff members discussed the matter with EPA and EPA agreed to reduce the number of violations and the penalty amount. The contractor's penalty was considerably greater, however.

City Administrator Michael Schmit said the city is acknowledging it co-signed the permit with the contractor.

"One might also argue that we should have done a better job overseeing the inspectors who were overseeing the construction project,'' he said. "Yes, we are admitting to one violation.''

The council's Finance Committee had earlier discussed the violation and supported the payment, but authorized City Attorney Rich Ronning to pursue reimbursement from HNTB, the architectural firm that served as airport construction manager.

"This could have been very easily resolved had the MPCA notified us at the time that they did the inspection and EPA had notified us at the time,'' said committee chairman Denis Anderson. "It's just a silt fence that was down. It would not have taken much effort to get it fixed. That said, (airport consultant) HNTB should have known that that fence was down. That's why we encouraged pursuing the matter with them.''

Speaking to Schmit, council member Steve Ahmann said, "To prevent this from happening again, I don't think we need a second warning. I'm sure you're on top of it.''

"We will be paying much closer attention to these types of projects,'' Schmit said. "It is unfortunate, but as Mr. Anderson stated, had MPCA stopped at the City Office Building after their inspection, we could have fixed the alleged violations that same day. It's very unfortunate and we will express our concerns to that agency as well.''

Council member Jim Dokken asked whether MPCA and EPA are concerned with preventing pollution or collecting revenue.

Schmit said MPCA's inspection took place in January when no grading was likely taking place, and EPA's inspection took place in November when he doubted any work was happening.

"Had MPCA notified us the day of the inspection, we could have prevented any erosion that might have occurred following that inspection period,'' he said.

In other business, the council:

- Approved the sale of $8,120,000 in municipal utility revenue bonds to Wells Fargo at an interest rate of 4.5894 percent. The bond issue will be used to finance construction of the utility's two wind turbines.

- Approved a settlement of $81,000 for Dale and Bonita Lindquist and a $37,000 settlement for Marie Schroeder for damages to their properties in southwest Willmar during construction of the interceptor sewer line for the wastewater treatment project.

- Voted to appeal cash awards approved by a court-appointed three-person panel to owners of three acreages affected by construction of the wastewater project's interceptor sewer.

- Received annual reports from Fire Chief Marv Calvin and from Bruce Peterson, director of planning and development services.