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DOJ, EPA sign stipulated orders to improve water quality and control pollution in CNMI / Action follows Commonwealth Utilities Corp. violations for wastewater and drinking water systems, and for oil spills and oil spill prevention

Release Date: 11/18/2008
Contact Information: Dean Higuchi, 808-541-2711, higuchi.dean@epa.gov

(11/18/09) HONOLULU – The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed and lodged two stipulated orders today seeking to reform and bring into compliance the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.’s wastewater plants and collection systems, public drinking water systems, five power plants and an oil transfer pipeline.

The first order requires CUC to comply with its water discharge permits for the Agingan and Sadog Tasi wastewater plants and to implement changes to prevent sewer overflows. It also requires CUC to achieve compliance in its drinking water systems, which currently present a health risk to the public. The second order requires CUC to prevent oil spills at its power plants and pipeline, to comply with oil spill regulations, prepare to respond to oil spills, and provide appropriate cleanup for past and future oil spills. Failure to meet these requirements will subject CUC to stipulated penalties.

The orders are designed to ensure lasting compliance through the reformation of CUC’s management and operations; the development of a wastewater and drinking water master plan; development of financial plans and the construction of water and wastewater infrastructure. In addition, CUC needs to ensure its power plants comply with all oil spill prevention and preparedness rules and all the necessary steps are taken to prevent future discharges of oil into ocean waters.

“EPA believes it is vital for CUC and CNMI to invest in infrastructure upgrades, to strengthen operation and maintenance, and to build a strong managerial and financial foundation to ensure all CNMI residents and visitors have water safe for drinking and safe for swimming”, said Wayne Nastri, regional administrator for EPA’s Pacific Southwest region. “EPA will continue to oversee CUC's implementation of these required improvements to bring long-needed environmental and public health gains to the islands.”

“The U.S. Attorney’s Office will work closely with the experts at the EPA to guarantee strict enforcement of the federal, environmental safety and health laws and regulations for clean drinking water and non-polluted waterways,” said the United States Attorney for the CNMI, Leonardo M. Rapadas. “The intent of today’s action is to set a distinct pathway to bring CUC’s wastewater plants and collections systems, public drinking water systems, and oil spill prevention, into full compliance.”

The EPA found that CUC, from 2000 to 2008, repeatedly discharged wastewater from its sewage treatment plants in violation of permit limits and failed to monitor its wastewater. CUC has also been discharging treated and untreated wastewater from the Agingan and Sadog Tasi plants without permits after their permits expired. Its failure to operate the plants properly has resulted in sewer overflows, in violation of the Clean Water Act, and CUC also violated three separate EPA Administrative Orders governing operation of the plants.

CUC also owns and operates the drinking water systems on the islands of Saipan, Rota, and Tinian. The systems have a long history of violating drinking water regulations, including exceeding safe levels for total coliform bacteria and Escherchia col ( E.coli), whose presence in water may indicate recent contamination by human or animal wastes. Consuming this water may cause gastrointestinal illness and poses a special health risk for infants, young children and people with weakened immune systems.

There have also been violations of monitoring and reporting requirements for a large number of other drinking water contaminants. Among CUC’s many violations are failure to report violations to the CNMI Division of Environmental Quality, the primary enforcement authority, and failing to take required water samples for nitrates. CUC also failed to complete monitoring for lead and copper, and did not provide the public with adequate notice regarding these violations.

CUC owns five power plants, and operates four of them, on the islands of Saipan and Rota. The facilities and an oil transfer pipeline on Saipan have a history of releases of oil. Inspections have found that CUC has caused discharges of harmful quantities of oil into the nearshore waters and shorelines.

In addition to past oil releases and the ongoing threats of oil releases from these facilities, CUC has failed to prepare and implement oil spill prevention plans for each of its five power plants and a Facility Response Plan at its Main Power Plant in Saipan.

The orders were lodged with the U.S. District Court in the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands simultaneously with the filing of a complaint by the U.S. Department of Justice to address violations of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act at facilities owned and operated by CUC. The orders will take effect when signed by the District Court judge following the conclusion of a 30-day public comment period. A copy of the orders lodged today is available on the Department of Justice website at: http://www.usdoj.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html

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