A lawsuit between a waterways conservation group and the Tuolumne Utilities District will likely end in a settlement, district officials said on Tuesday.
But any terms of that settlement will remain unknown until discussions are final.
The TUD Board of Directors discussed a federal lawsuit filed against the district by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance during a meeting on Tuesday.
General Manager Pete Kampa and several directors said the organization has made a habit of suing public entities and getting settlements over alleged sewage leaks or spills, usually resulting in the cities or counties paying some legal fees and long-term monitoring fees.
“They’ve used this same lawsuit over and over,” Kampa said.
The lawsuit accuses the district of illegal sewage spills and high pollutant levels in the district’s recycled water. It also alleges TUD violated the federal Clean Water Act with 130 spills or leaks in the sewage system dating back to October 2007.
The alliance is seeking penalties that could reach millions of dollars, but the two entities are currently in settlement talks. Kampa said the organization has reached similar agreements with entities like El Dorado County, Sacramento, Stockton and other cities and counties.
While he said there’s no evidence the district broke any environmental regulations and maintains so in court, Kampa also said an agreement is more likely than a victory in court.
“I wish I could say that we could just walk away from this,” he said. “Going to court over something like this can be really expensive.”
The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance focuses its efforts largely to protect the state’s fisheries. The organization sued El Dorado Irrigation District in 2009 over similar allegations. The two parties later settled for $240,000 and other payments.
The lawsuit also accuses the district of failing to live up to rules for pollutants allowed in recycled water, which is stored in a reservoir and either sold to agricultural customers or discharged into Woods Creek. The complaint claims that the recycled water treated at the TUD sewage treatment plant in Sonora contains higher levels of copper and biological oxygen than allowed by law.
The Sportfishing Protection Alliance sent letters to state and federal agencies, the lawsuit states. The legal paperwork says that neither the EPA nor the state of California has commenced or is diligently prosecuting an action.
Multiple directors bemoaned the situation, and Director Jim Grinnell requested the possible liability for the lawsuit should be reported for the district’s next audit for public information purposes.
“I think the district has a responsibility to report accurately to the public,” Grinnell said.
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