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Utica Energy settles pair of pollution suits (UPDATE)

By Sean Ryan

Utica Energy LLC has settled two cases over the same wastewater permit violations — a situation an attorney for the company says amounts to overkill.

First, the Oshkosh ethanol producer settled Wisconsin Department of Justice charges by agreeing to finish a $200,000 project to build a pipe so Utica’s wastewater can be sent to a sewer treatment plant.

Now, the company faces another $110,000 payment to settle a federal lawsuit filed by two environmental groups, the Clean Water Action Council of Northeastern Wisconsin Inc. and Midwest Environmental Advocates. The proposed payment includes $50,000 for clean water projects, $50,000 in attorney fees for the environmental groups and $10,000 in fines to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Both cases are based on charges that water discharged from Utica’s plant into Sawyer Creek violated a state permit because the water was too hot and had excessive levels of minerals, such as zinc.

Stephen Kravit, attorney representing Utica Energy, said the environmental groups should have left enforcement to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources instead of doubling up on the company.

“Every group has its purpose in the system,” he said. “I do think it best that complaints be addressed to the agency responsible for them.”

The U.S. Clean Water Act lets citizens sue for wastewater violations if people do so before a government agency files charges. In this case, Rebecca Katers, executive director of the Clean Water Action Council, went to DNR offices, checked the files on Utica Energy’s water quality tests and used the information to sue the company before the DNR filed its complaint.

The 300-member water council did the same thing when it sued Fort James Operating Co. in Green Bay over alleged permit violations, Katers said. She said the group serves an import role monitoring companies’ compliance with wastewater permits.

“We don’t do this lightly,” Katers said of the lawsuits. “I would like to emphasize that. We don’t run around just filing lawsuits.”

The settlement between Utica and the environmental groups was sent to the EPA Tuesday for approval. The agency has 45 days to review the agreement.

Kravit said Utica executives are concerned about water quality, and the environmental groups’ lawsuit in addition to the DNR action is heavy-handed.

“Now they have this additional layer of issues, which seemed to us to be somewhat overstated,” he said. “It’s not right to pollute. Nobody wants to pollute.”

Utica’s plant uses groundwater to cool large metal tanks where corn mash is heated to make ethanol. The water is discharged into a culvert that leads to Sawyer Creek. In the process, the water is heated, picks up bits of grain that blow out of the tank and gains a higher concentration of minerals as some of the liquid evaporates.

Katers said she could not demonstrate on-the-ground environmental damage from the plant because expensive studies would be needed to determine mineral concentrations. But, she said, when water cleanliness falls short of DNR permit requirements, she presumes damage is occurring.

Katers said the $50,000 in water project money from the proposed settlement with Utica will not directly target the ethanol plant’s effects on the river. But it will improve Sawyer Creek’s water quality with other projects to stop storm water from carrying pollution into the waterway.

“The biggest improvement, of course, will be the DNR’s settlement,” she said, “and having them hook up to the sewer treatment plant.”

The project to build a pipe to the treatment plant is almost complete, Kravit said. The ethanol plant will stop discharging water into the creek by March 2010 at the latest, he said.

“From my clients’ side, Utica wants to be a good corporate citizen,” he said, “and wants to put these issues behind it.”

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