La Salle residents testify at Illinois Pollution Control Board hearing about wastewater agreement

Board to determine next steps in upcoming months

La Salle City Attorney James McPhedran gives his opening statement during Thursday's hearing.

La Salle residents told an Illinois Pollution Control Board hearing officer Thursday that an agreement between the city of La Salle and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency was met without properly notifying residents, and those residents said they requested Thursday’s hearing because they believed they weren’t being heard or answered at city meetings.

The city of La Salle responded Thursday that the agreement it made with the EPA was valid and many of the concerns brought forward during the hearing were off topic.

The Illinois Pollution Control Board will take Thursday’s hearing under advisement, and it may be a few months before a decision is made on what’s next.

Assistant Attorney General Cara Sawyer said Thursday’s hearing covered a stipulation filed Nov. 13, 2023, regarding the southern wastewater treatment plant in La Salle.

La Salle City Attorney James McPhedran said the proceedings Thursday were about the south wastewater treatment plant even though water quality in the city and a pipe going from the Carus plant into the Vermilion River may be of public interest.

“I do want to underline that the only thing relevant is the four corners of the stipulation,” Illinois Pollution Control Board hearing officer Brad Halloran said.

McPhedran said the state agrees that the city is in total compliance with the stipulations involved related to the hearing.

Sawyer said there were two violations. The first violation was a wastewater discharge into the Illinois River, which occurred in June and August 2021.

Sawyer said those discharges exceeded permanent monthly and weekly average levels of two pollutants: total suspended solids and a required oxygenation factor.

The first two counts of the complaint against La Salle addressed these two overages.

“The third count,” Sawyer said, “addresses the second violation. That violation was a failure to submit certain reports required by the permit by that wastewater treatment plant from 2019.”

Sawyer said the reports that La Salle failed to turn in included combined sewage outfall and long-term control planning progress reports. Both are due from 2019 through 2021, totaling five reports.

A vital monitoring report is required to keep tabs on the impeding outflow of aquatic species, four reports on which were due from 2019 to 2020. The third report was a phosphor discharge optimization plan, three reports on which were due from 2019 to 2021.

Sawyer said those were the reports listed in the complaint, and they were fully resolved in the stipulation. She said the city agreed to pay a penalty of $5,740, and the city submitted its reports Feb. 22, 2022, before the EPA filed its complaint.

“We have filed many other stipulations that this board has accepted,” Sawyer said. “This is no different. This case is not unusual or novel.”

Sawyer said settlements can resolve issues in a way that is “much better for the environment and also for the taxpayer dollar, considering you’re dealing with two government entities here.”

Terry Boyer, an engineer, testified soon after La Salle had received the notice of violation from the Illinois EPA that he was asked to assist in resolving the issue.

Boyer said he assisted in getting the city into compliance, finding during his investigation that the city had been continuing to complete the reports and the lab work in a timely manner, but the reports were not turned in.

He said some of the reports were previously put together by Jeff Bumgarner, who no longer is working with the city, and during that transitional time frame, action items got lost in the shuffle.

La Salle resident Jamie Hicks asked Boyer if forms were filled in to make up for what wasn’t being done.

“Long-term control plan efforts were ongoing at the time,” Boyer said. “The reports were not done contemporaneously because they were missed. They were done afterward and documented.

“The actual efforts were done. The biomarker reports were done by the time they were required. They were just not reported to the agency in a timely manner.”

Terry Boyer, an engineer, testified that pretty soon after La Salle had received the notice of violation from the Illinois EPA he was asked to assist in resolving the issue.

Boyer said the dates registered on paper are from the lab.

“You know when they are performed,” he said.

Boyer testified that he verified the work was completed and he trusted the conversations he had with the city.

He said that what was found by looking through the data was La Salle had a significant amount of rainfall, which led to a high level of flow to the wastewater plant on two occasions in August and one in June.

“That resulted in the VOD and TSS violations to slightly go above as a monthly concentration for those months,” he said.

Boyer testified that he looked at the entire year in 2021, and the pounds per day of VOD and pounds per day of TSS going into the Illinois River were well below what the permit limits require.

“Those graphs just show day in and day out the city is being very protective of the water quality going into the Illinois River,” he said. “And [that] the events in question in June and August were due to unusually high rain events that the city didn’t have any control over.”

After Boyer’s testimony, La Salle residents were able to ask questions or make a statement to the board.

Resident Brianne Hicks said she had questions she knew might not get answered Thursday, but she wanted them on record. She asked whether any studies were conducted about the effect on humans or wildlife but was told it was irrelevant to the stipulation.

“Did the city publicly notify anyone of the pollution when it occurred in June or August?” Hicks said.

“I don’t know if there are any requirements for the public to be notified,” McPhedran said. “But that’s why we had Mr. Boyer testify.”

Resident Dawn Hicks read a statement about the adverse water quality in the city and said she has asked during multiple city meetings what has been going on with the city’s water and water treatment plant.

McPhedran said Dawn Hick’s statement was in regard to drinking water and therefore was outside the four corners of the stipulation.

Dawn Hicks said McPhedran opened the door for her to discuss water quality when he previously asked Boyer about the quality of drinking water during his testimony.

Halloran said it wasn’t relevant but he would allow her the latitude to continue.

“There has been a lack of accountability in La Salle, " Dawn Hicks said. “We are respectfully asking that our mayor be honest and more forthcoming about our water issues in the future. It could quite possibly save lives.”

The Illinois EPA has said that despite discoloration in the city’s drinking water, it remains within compliance of standards, according to information provided by Kim Briggs of the Illinois EPA in December.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Christopher S. Grant asked Dawn Hicks to clarify whether she was talking about an exceedance of state and federal regulations.

Dawn Hicks said she was citing her findings and she still was learning the data.

“Based on reporting, directly to your knowledge, while it’s not relevant, is the city within compliance with the EPA regulations?” McPhedran asked Grant.

“The stipulation is limited to violations from three years ago in a wastewater treatment plant,” Grant said. “I am very reluctant not having any information right now to give the city a free pass on anything else that’s happened since 2021, particularly with drinking water.”

Jamie Hicks asked if the work being done at the treatment plant had anything to do with the stipulation.

Sawyer said she didn’t know anything about it, and what was written in the stipulation is all that was agreed upon.

McPhedran said he brought copies of the water quality reports with him, even though it was not relevant to the hearing, and offered copies to the public.

Halloran said McPhedran could submit the reports to the board as a part of his post-hearing briefs.

Halloran said any further written public comment on the matter is due April 4. The parties’ post-hearing briefs are due April 25.

The hearing will be posted on the Illinois Pollution Control Board website March 14.

The Illinois Pollution Control Board sets environmental standards for the state and adjudicates complaints regarding noncriminal violations of the acts.