While drivers filled up their gas tanks and took a break from the interstate on Jan. 13, 2012, the Ohio-based TA Operating LLC executive office received a letter of intent to sue from a Western North Carolina environmental advocacy group for the company’s years of pollution to the stream behind its wastewater treatment facility in Buncombe County.
From February 2008 to May 2011, the company had been fined more than $14,000 by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources for violating the permit of TravelCenters of America‘s Candler Travel Center, according to data gleaned from NCDENR’s website.
When the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Western North Carolina Alliance examined NCDENR’s records, the group found that the state had not enforced the majority of the penalties beyond the initial fines, said Hartwell Carson, French Broad Riverkeeper with the alliance.
The state-allotted permit, which is part of a national program named the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System set up by the 1972 federal Clean Water Act regulates the amount of wastewater a facility can discharge directly to a body of water.
Under the same act, there is a citizen suit provision that allows citizens to sue any entity that is violating its permit without repercussions from NCDENR or the Environmental Protection Agency, which is the overall governing agency of the NPDES permits.
“It was pretty clear on this that they weren’t (enforcing the permits),” Carson said. He added that Travel America is a Fortune 500 company.
Under the citizen suit provision, the civilian filing the suit must submit a 60-day letter of intent to sue to the entity before taking action. “Ironically, most of the time people don’t do anything,” Carson said.
However, Travel America did. The alliance transferred the issue to NCDENR to work out a settlement agreement with the company to bring it into compliance, said Chuck Cranford, surface water protection supervisor with NCDENR’s Division of Water Quality Asheville regional office.
When Mark Young, Travel America’s executive vice president and general counsel who signed the settlement agreement, was contacted about the agreement, he said, “we have no comment on pending litigation.”
The operating firm of the Candler Travel Center’s wastewater treatment plant James & James Environmental Management Inc. was contacted and also declined to comment. “I am contractually required not to answer the questions per my client’s request,” Harry James of the firm said.
Travel America willingly and fully cooperated with the Division of Water Quality and developed an acceptable plan to bring the plant into full compliance with their permit, which was incorporated into a settlement agreement, according to NCDENR representatives.
The agreement required Travel America to request a visit from a NCDENR official to inspect the improvements done to the wastewater treatment plant by June 30, 2012. Jeff Menzel of Asheville’s Division of Water Quality office went to the plant on July 17 and said “they’re on track to return to consistent compliance.”
One of the reasons the plant violated its permit repeatedly, Menzel said, is because the creek — an unnamed tributary of the George Branch sub-basin that it discharges to — is considerably smaller than a waterway such as the French Broad River. The size of the receiving stream determines the amount of pollutant discharge allowed.
“They have much stricter limits on this plant than probably, I would say, 95 percent of the facilities we permit,” Menzel said.
Of use of the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit, Hartwell Carson of the Western North Carolina Alliance said, “really we only want to tackle the (problems) that aren’t being addressed. If the state’s on top of it, that’s great.”