Will latest woes finally bring action?

Thursday, March 18, 2004

We've heard about worst-case scenarios before, but this is ridiculous. In what will go down in history as one of the most alarming meetings ever, members of the McCook City Council were told that the city faces of up to $37,000 per day in fines for releasing too much ammonia into the Republican River.

An unbelievable figure ... almost beyond comprehension. According to the latest calculations -- for Jan. 1, 2000 through March 17, 2004 -- penalties to date could total a staggering $56.9 million.

We hope the penalty threat is just a scare tactic. It's hard to believe that any governmental agency -- or anyone else for that matter -- would penalize the people of a town so severely for officials' failure to find solutions to very difficult problems.

If carried to the extreme -- and the full penalty were levied -- McCook would have to come up with $7,118 for every man, woman and child within the city limits.

The problem is all about ammonia ... and federal and state agencies' attempts to enforce their rules. Some time ago -- City Manager John Bingham is guessing it was in the early 1990s -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed the Republican River's designation to "recreational."

And -- because of that change -- the ammonia discharged into the river suddenly became taboo, creating big problems for the city of McCook. The reason is that McCook's wastewater treatment plant does not completely eliminate ammonia. The problem has been studied and re-studied, first by Olsson Associates and later by Miller & Associates.

The irony is that McCook is en route to fixing the problem, with the City Council deciding during budget deliberations last summer to pursue the least expensive of three solutions proposed by Miller & Associates. But -- since then -- a pilot study by Miller & Associates has been delayed by an attempt to get a second opinion.

Now -- in light of the threatened penalties -- the second opinion has been dropped as the city seeks to solve the ammonia problem as quickly as it can.

As serious as the ammonia situation is, it's only one of the problems faced by McCook. The other is the nitrate level in the city's water supply. Unless that problem is fixed, the city faces a whole other set of sanctions and penalties.

So what can be done? How can McCook's City Council and city staff fix the problems, and -- we hope -- prevent massive penalties?

Suggestions should be forthcoming shortly. City Manager John Bingham has the responsibility of looking into the administrative orders and reporting to the council at a special meeting scheduled for Monday, March 29. It's long past time to act -- on both the sewer and water problems. While the penalty amounts are scary, their benefit may be that they spur the city into action.

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