As part of a deal to settle a major lawsuit brought by federal environmental regulators, the Utah Department of Transportation is agreeing to clean up the way it manages and monitors stormwater runoff from road construction sites and salt storage facilities.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documented various violations of UDOT’s wastewater discharge permit and the Clean Water Act dating back to 2013, according to a suit filed Sept. 23 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. Before that legal step, the feds arranged a settlement with UDOT in the form of a proposed consent decree filed at the same time.
In the proposed settlement, signed by UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras back in May and still subject to court approval, the state agency does not acknowledge fault, but it does agree to a $325,000 fine and to take various corrective measures to remain in compliance with its permits and other legal obligations going forward.
The decree is out for public comment through Oct. 31. The feds may withdraw the settlement if submitted comments show the accord is inappropriate.
“UDOT considers safety a top priority and this includes environmental safety,” agency spokesman Zach Whitney wrote in an email Friday. “For years, we have had a robust and responsive stormwater maintenance program. In 2015, as part of a scheduled audit by the Environmental Protection Agency, we became aware of some areas of improvement that were needed to comply with federal stormwater standards. UDOT began immediately to work with the EPA and the US Department of Justice to make those improvements.”
The feds' 29-page complaint alleges widespread failure to minimize the discharge of pollutants from roads into municipal sewer systems and to monitor the presence of harmful contaminants in various waterways. As a result, avoidable pollution allegedly was washed into the Weber, Logan, Jordan and Santa Clara rivers and other "navigable" waters, including the Great Salt Lake.
The suit seeks an injunction requiring UDOT to "achieve permanent and consistent compliance with" the Clean Water Act, stormwater regulations and its permit issued by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
The transportation agency oversees 6,000 miles of roads in Utah and hundreds of more miles under construction or repair by private contractors.
A 2013 inspection documented that stormwater washed salt and other pollutants from UDOT storage yards into gutters and drains. At the time, the agency had mapped less than a third of its stormwater outfalls in urban areas.
"By failing to map the locations of all outfalls, and by allowing salt and other pollutants from its facilities to flow into various drains, curbs, gutters and/or retention ponds, UDOT failed to implement a program to detect and eliminate illicit discharges and improper disposal into its [stormwater runoff]," the suit alleges.
Nor did UDOT properly educate and oversee many of the private firms it hired to construct roads, court papers said.
There was "no documented plan for enforcing requirements for construction site operators to reduce stormwater discharges, no system for tracking violations or enforcement and no consistent documentation of corrections performed in response to UDOT’s inspection findings," the suit said. "A number of UDOT construction sites had no record of inspections performed by either the construction site operator or by UDOT."
In some instances, regulators said, the agency located monitoring stations in spots where they would not pick up a representative sample, thus making it likely violations of pollution limits went undetected. One such monitoring site was on the Jordan River, where it cross Interstate 215 at the Murray Parkway Golf Course. Because of excessive groundwater infiltration there, the water being monitored was heavily diluted, providing an inaccurate picture of the water quality.
The settlement requires UDOT to post annual reports on its progress implementing the terms of the settlement and describing any instances of noncompliance.
On Friday, the agency outlined the following measures it initiated in response to the EPA audit, stating it has:
• Implemented a strict stormwater compliance training program for all UDOT employees.
• Hired an environmental compliance coordinator and four stormwater program coordinators.
• Developed a complete storm sewer map and revised its plan for controlling “'illicit” discharges.
“We are confident these changes will not only bring us into better compliance with federal standards,” Whitney said, “but ensure we are doing our part to protect Utah’s natural resources and the people of Utah.”