- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 8, 2015

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - The largest utility on the Navajo Nation has agreed to pay a $25,000 fine for discharging more pollutants into a normally dry creek bed than its permit allowed.

The fine is part of a settlement reached with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Navajo Nation counterpart over violations of the Clean Water Act. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is the first tribally owned entity to be fined under the tribe’s Clean Water Act modeled after the federal law.

The EPA said pollutants sent from the Window Rock wastewater treatment facility into the normally dry Black Creek exceeded permitted levels since at least 2011. That prompted the tribe’s Water Quality program under the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency to bring an enforcement action against the utility.

Officials also alleged that the utility didn’t keep up with submitting reports and inadequately operated the wastewater treatment facility that serves 13,000 people. The decades-old facility relies on a series of lagoons to treat wastewater.

Donald Benn, executive director of the tribe’s EPA, said laws must be followed to protect public health and the environment. Excess ammonia could harm aquatic organisms, and the presence of human pathogens could lead to illness, the EPA said.

Under the settlement, the tribal utility has to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act by the end of the year or face further fines. The utility’s deputy general manager, Rex Kontz, said that effort already is underway with construction of a $14 million plant in Window Rock that will mechanically separate waste and chemically treat the water. The funding comes from a combination of grants, loans and the utility’s budget, he said.

Kontz didn’t dispute the violations of the Clean Water Act and said the utility has to do a better job of sampling, submitting reports and ensuring that the plant’s operators are properly certified. He said the utility went back and forth with officials from the tribal and federal EPA over whether fixing problems in the lagoon system or building a new treatment plant was a better option.

“They just want to get us in compliance,” he said. “No hard feelings against them.”

Once operational, the new plant will be able to handle an influx of water in the Window Rock area from a pipeline project that was guaranteed as part of a settlement of the tribe’s water rights in the San Juan Basin.

Kontz said the wastewater treatment plant in Shiprock, New Mexico, also will need to be rebuilt be soon because the community has outgrown it and it’s at risk of being out of compliance.

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