A Netherlands-based beverage bottling company with around 120 employees at its Walla Walla facility, continues to rack up fines for discharging dirty and potentially dangerous wastewater, according to Walla Walla city staff.
Refresco Beverages Group has accrued dozens of violations over the last decade, ranging from 2013 to August 2021. Refresco was cited 18 times in 2019 for being out of compliance with its wastewater discharge; 16 times in 2020; and six times so far this year. These violations have resulted in around $444,000 in fines, the largest of which was issued last month.
Refresco’s violations range from administrative — not responding to cease and desist orders from the city, not submitting samples as required by prior agreements — to unacceptably high levels of contaminants or dangerous acidity levels, among other discharge issues.
Refresco has received 19 violations for overly high or low pH levels, either of which can cause damage to city infrastructure. Often, those violations each constituted more than one problematic reading — in March 2020, the company received a single violation for 12 separate occurrences of unacceptable pH discharge.
In 2014, the city received such low pH wastewater from Refresco that it resulted in the wastewater entering the treatment plant to drop to extremely acidic levels, wrote Leah Rohan, environmental Engineer for the city Public Works Department, in an email.
“This can corrode the infrastructure (sewer lines and at the treatment plant) and put the city employees at risk who may come into contact with the acidic waste,” Rohan wrote.
Refresco’s wastewater was also frequently found to contain toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in excess of regulatory limits, as much as 43 times the allowed amount. Refresco agreed to a compliance plan in 2019 that required the company to conduct monthly PCB tests; however, the company has also faced numerous fines for failing to provide PCB samples as required.
“It’s imperative that our industries, especially those considered ‘significant’ like Refresco due to their large volume of discharge, do not discharge more contaminates than the treatment plant can remove,” Rohan wrote. “The city’s wastewater treatment plant discharges into Mill Creek or to irrigators part of the year and if it cannot remove those contaminate because it has received too much, then it goes right into the environment.”
Collectively, these discharge violations not only strain city infrastructure, but opens the city to potential fines from state and federal regulators. If regulators got involved, the city may be required to expand or upgrade the wastewater treatment plant, Rohan said, which would be extremely costly to tax payers.
In April 2020, Refresco agreed to a number of additional monitoring and reporting requirements. It also agreed to build a pretreatment system, helping to clean the plant’s wastewater before it reached city treatment facilities, that would be fully operational by June 30, 2021.
However, in February 2021, the company informed Walla Walla city staff that it would not be able to meet this deadline due in part to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response, city staff issued a final notice of compliance, informing Refresco that the company would be granted an additional 12-month extension to build the pretreatment plant, with a final deadline of June 31, 2022. However, Refresco would be levied a $500 per day fine starting July 1 this year until the pretreatment plant was operational — or the company’s operating permit was revoked. No additional extensions would be granted, city staff wrote.
This daily fine was issued on top of other violations related to unacceptably high levels of PCBs or acidity. In July, Refresco was issued a total of almost $39,000 in fines; in August, the company was fined more than $51,000.
“Their monthly violations from now on, until they meet their extended compliance deadline next year, will likely be at least $50k a month,” Rohan wrote.
However, city staff have publicly expressed concern that Refresco does not appear to be taking the fines seriously and changing its behavior. At a February 2020 hearing showing cause for a violation, city staff informed Refresco that the company had nearly $90,000 in outstanding fines, but that the fines did not seem to encourage them to fix their discharge problems. At the February hearing, city staff floated the possibility of simply revoking Refresco’s operating permit.
In late August, the city made that possibility public, issuing a press release threatening to functionally shut down the Walla Walla bottling plant.
“Fines usually encourage compliance; however, Refresco has been slow in taking action to address the issues,” wrote Shane Prudente, communications coordinator for the Walla Walla Public Works Department. “If Refresco fails to meet this (June 31, 2022) deadline, its permit will be revoked, effectively prohibiting the company’s discharge and ceasing operations.”
Refresco did not respond to a request for comment for this story.