The old adage is that a cover-up is punished more harshly than the crime. With respect to environmental matters, this adage should be revised to say it’s not the original release but the failure to report that release to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that causes the problem. Just ask Camp Hill Borough in central Pennsylvania and its former Borough manager. In May 2013, Camp Hill entered into an agreement with DEP in which the Borough admitted to 97 days of unreported discharges of raw sewage discharges into the Yellow Breeches and Conodoguinet Creeks and paid a $140,000 civil penalty. The consequences did not stop there. In November 2015, Camp Hill’s former Borough manager pled no contest to a criminal charge of allowing raw sewage to flow into the streams. He was fined $3,000 and sentenced to six months’ probation.
The irony is that many of the discharges probably would have been excused by DEP because they were caused by severe weather events. Camp Hill, however, did not meet its obligation to report the releases to DEP, as it is required to do under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law. It was this failure to report that accounted for much of the civil penalty and was a significant factor that led to the criminal charges against the former Borough manager.
Municipalities and authorities that operate sewage treatment plants, as well as businesses whose operations may impact streams, need to make every effort to prevent unauthorized discharges to the waters of the Commonwealth. Such releases, however, may occur, despite the best efforts of those responsible. When this happens, the best course of action is to report immediately the release to DEP. Historically, DEP is sympathetic about releases that occur because of events beyond the control of facility operators. DEP has little sympathy for those who fail to report the discharge, even though it may otherwise be an excusable release. This failure to report can lead to significant fines against the municipality or business, and also possible criminal liability for operators and managers.
Attorneys with our Environmental Practice Group have the requisite knowledge and experience with regulatory agencies to assist parties to understand their legal obligations and to work with the both public and private facility operators when releases do occur.