Utility faces penalty for wastewater release in nature preserve

BEE CAVE, Texas (KXAN) — A Travis County public utility is facing thousands of dollars in fines for environmental violations that included the release of nearly 2 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve last year, according to records obtained by KXAN.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality proposed the $10,000 penalty against the West Travis County Public Utility Agency. The utility's general manager, Robert Pugh, confirmed it has already paid $8,000. TCEQ deferred $2,000 in fines, contingent on the utility's compliance with terms in the enforcement order, according to TCEQ records.

"Our goal is for this to never happen again," Pugh said. "We are looking at doing some better best-management practices, working more closely on effluent management."

The violations focus on problems with the utility's wastewater operation, according to TCEQ investigation reports.

One of the utility's storage ponds located just north of the Hill Country Galleria released roughly 1.8 million gallons of treated wastewater into the Balcones Preserve from May 19, 2016, through May 24, 2016. In addition, another storage pond located on the Falconhead Golf Course discharged wastewater that pooled on the course, and the pond's liner was torn, according to an investigation report.

Pugh said the utility's wastewater ponds were in danger of overfilling because of high rainfall.

"We had to do a controlled discharge, so we didn't risk, basically, a dam breach or break," Pugh said.

"We had to do a controlled discharge, so we didn't risk, basically, a dam breach or break," Pugh said.

The wastewater is highly treated, Pugh said. It isn't safe to drink, but contact would not harm a person, he added. Pugh began working at the utility in August and was not employed there during the time of the violations. The utility provides water and sewer services for about 25,000 people.

Neil Carman, an environmental expert at the Sierra Club Lonestar Chapter, said the discharges are concerning, and the treated effluent can be harmful. There can be "pathogenic organisms" in treated wastewater that could cause illness or skin problems, Carman said.

"They treat it to a high level, but it may not be adequate. This is the problem," Carman said. "The area out there is rapidly growing so they've got more liquid solid material to deal with. They've got to expand and stay ahead of the curve."

Pugh said the utility is working to expand its wastewater irrigation too keep the ponds from getting too high in the future.

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