By Jon Cassidy | Ohio Watchdog
“Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”
With a little paraphrase, the famous line from Apocalypse Now could tell you something about justice, water quality, and environmental regulation in rural Trumbull County, where sewage is a major problem, and one of the few people doing anything about it is facing a $70,000 fine for his trouble.
Just change “murder” to “water violation,” and you’ll have some idea of Richard Thompson’s situation.
County officials have big plans to build sewerage system throughout the jurisdiction over a 20-year period, but until then, most county residents handle their waste the way they always have – with septic systems.
Only around 10 percent of those septic systems meet the standards of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, according to a 2007 estimate by the local health board.
The big reason is cost.New compliant systems can cost up to $25,000, equal to the value of many properties in the region, which is far from wealthy.
So, many people make do with what they have, and wait for the sewers to come. That’s particularly true in Thompson’s hometown.
“Our situation here in Kinsman is we’re somewhat isolated,” he said. “In other words, we’re 15 miles from anybody. I think in the end, there were 300-plus, 360 maybe, families in Kinsman proper, and when we looked at the price tag of putting a sanitary sewer collection system in and a treatment plant, it was just unaffordable.”
The community had been trying to get a sewerage system for decades – Thompson himself has been serving on the sewer committee since 1997 – but the costs were always too high.
But in 2005, Thompson bought a shuttered $3-million Kraft plant on the outskirts of town that “came with an anaerobic and an aerobic treatment plant – large lagoons and pumping stations and all the infrastructure and it was something that we were not going to use” in the main building, he said, which he planned to turn into a business incubator.
“We asked the county if they would want that for the site for their future treatment plant for the city of Kinsman and all the infrastructure that was already there, hoping that it would save costs for the project and would kickstart it,” he said.
And that’s what happened. Thompson donated the plant and surrounding acreage, along with $137,000 for upgrades, to the county. The donation led to a $400,000 federal grant, and the project kept up some momentum.
This year, the county plans to build the sewer main that will finally connect Kinsman residents to Thompson’s plant, which has been retrofitted.
As well, in 2011, Thompson donated 3,095 acres of farmland and waterfront property to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy through easements, permanently protecting some 11.4 miles of tributaries to the Shenango River.
It’s that fondness for preservation that got him in trouble with the Ohio EPA.
In July 2008, Thompson bought the historic house of one of Kinsman’s pioneers at a county auction. It came bundled with a 60-year-old diner that had belonged to the same estate.
“I really didn’t want the restaurant,” he said. “It was the historical home I was after. Unfortunately, they packaged them into the sale.”
“Everybody kept begging him to keep it open,” said Stephen Haughey, Thompson’s attorney.
So Thompson found a new owner-operator for Times Square, the diner that had served as a hub of the community since 1946.
In early 2009, he got a letter from the Ohio EPA telling him that the restaurant was not in compliance with state regulations.
For city dwellers who never have to think about such things, septic systems use a tank to contain solid matter, and release wastewater called effluent into a leach field of gravel and soil, where bacteria treat many of the contaminants.
According to the EPA, Times Square, like hundreds of neighboring properties, was discharging wastewater without a proper leach field. One side effect of the sewer project is that nobody in Kinsman wants to spend $20,000 on a septic system that would only be used until the sewer system comes online.
Thompson rejects the charge that untreated wastewater was reaching any waterways.
“We went through a time of trying to meter the discharge and it was so small that we couldn’t record it,” he said. “We were judging that there was about 300 gallons a day. It is on sandy soil. Whatever the discharge was, it leached into the ground in matter of 25 feet, 15 feet maybe, and it was a football field away from any stream.”
The EPA called for the restaurant to keep all waste in a tank, operator Carol Wilson told a local TV station.
“When I called around to have these tanks pumped, the cheapest was $1,000 a month to $1,200 a month, and I cannot afford that,” Wilson said.
Instead, Thompson spent $21,000 to build a leach field on a neighboring property, which cost him more than simply closing the business, but it satisfied the EPA — almost. The EPA decided that Thompson still should have to pay a $70,000 fine to cover the period from July 2008 until October 2011, when the field was finished.
“We inherited the problem, we fixed the problem, we saved the business, and for the privilege of that, they’re going to fine us $70,000,” he said.
Even though the Ohio EPA has known about discharge problems at the property since 1984, it never imposed any comparable penalty on the previous owner, or on any of Thompson’s neighbors, who still are out of compliance.
The Ohio EPA declined to explain how it calculated the fine or comment otherwise, citing the lawsuit the Attorney General has filed on its behalf.
“I believe that what they did when I happened to acquire the property is they saw me as somebody with the means to correct it, and they came after me,” Thompson said. “When I used the word selective enforcement, the attorney for the EPA said, ‘Gee I wish you wouldn’t use that term.’ And I said, ‘How else am I supposed to view this?’ All of Kinsman is out of compliance and you come and knock at my door.”
An editorial in the local Tribune-Chronicle summed up its view: “The OEPA should visit Kinsman to award Thompson a commendation for helping to improve the environment. Instead, the over-reaching and overzealous agency is trying to punish him.”
Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office filed a lawsuit against Thompson in October to enforce the EPA’s fine.
“We’re trying to get a court date as soon as possible,” Thompson said. “I have faith in the justice system, that once the facts are explained, they will not levy a fine to that extent.”
Contact Jon Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org