After more than a decade in violation of the Clean Water Act, state officials have ordered Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park to shut down its sewage lagoon, which is seeping a mixture of feces, urine and bath water into its namesake creek.
“They have been a longtime problem for the division,” said Mike Harris, a manager for the Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment’s clean water enforcement unit. “And it’s just gone on too long.”
Last month, the state health department sent a cease-and-desist order to the park’s owner, Darlene Mann, for the unlined wastewater pond, which is less than 100 feet from Lightner Creek on Lightner Creek Road (County Road 207). According to the state, the pool of sewage is leeching iron and coliform into Lightner Creek, a typically low-flow waterway that is a tributary of the Animas River. While iron can be detrimental to aquatic life, coliform can produce strains of E. coli that cause diarrhea, nausea, fever and vomiting to humans that come in contact with the water.
Mann denied in an email Thursday having been officially served any such order. Three copies of the order sent to Mann’s residences in Bayfield, Santa Clara, Utah, and the mobile home park make that assertion a bit unbelievable, Harris said.
“We know where the owner is but haven’t been successful getting her to respond or even acknowledge a receipt of the order,” Harris said. “They are not actively communicating with us.”
Trouble with the park began in 2005, when the department ordered a shutdown of the wastewater lagoon – which takes in the sewage of about 40 mobile homes – for being outdated and susceptible to leakage into the waterway.
In 2009, the park’s groundwater permit for the lagoon expired. After re-evaluating the property, the state determined a surface water permit was more appropriate because of the clear connection between the unlined lagoon and the creek.
However, the state has not received an application for that permit, and each day, the park is at-risk of $10,000 fines until it brings the facility into compliance with the Clean Water Act – a 1972 federal law intended to ensure the health of national waters.
Harris said, essentially, the 2005 order bleeds into the one issued Feb. 22. Although the state prefers to guide violators into compliance, if the owner continues to disregard warnings, more extreme measures must be taken.
“We don’t like to do it, especially when people’s homes are potentially put in jeopardy,” Harris said of the worst-case scenario: shutting down the mobile home park.
“But if they don’t comply with this order, we’ll file a petition in La Plata County District Court asking for a court order. And if they fail to respond to that, they’ll be in contempt of court.”
Mann was given a clear timetable of corrective actions, and she failed to meet the first requirement that was to be completed in 30 days: hire an engineer to evaluate the site. Harris said the division usually reserves tacking on penalties and unleashing major enforcement actions until it’s beyond dispute the owner is unwilling to cooperate.
Mann wrote in an email she has hired a professional agent to address the facility, but no report or official document has been submitted to the state health department. She declined any further comment.
Some residents of Lightner Creek Mobile Home Park, about a mile off U.S. Highway 160 west of Durango, were unaware of the state’s action, but were not shocked by news of the shutdown order.
“That doesn’t surprise me – it stinks over there all the time,” said Crystal Martinez. “The owner is never around and never listens to our complaints. Yet the rent goes up every year.”
Clint Hunt, an adjacent property owner downstream of the mobile park, said he’s noticed suds in Lightner Creek ever since his family moved there in 1971.
“We knew it was sewage,” said Hunt. “We always suspected it was the mobile park. It’s just a bad place. We’ve had it with them for a long time.”
Hunt said his family uses the water only for irrigation, which is a “concern for sure,” but he’s also noted the steady decline of fish in the creek for years.
The state health department officially lists Lightner Creek as an “unimpaired waterway,” but says potentially toxic materials – namely iron and coliform – continue to leech into the waterway at levels that exceed state and federal standards.
Harris said when sewage from the mobile homes enters the lagoon, the sludge sits at the bottom and an aeration fountain circulates the water. While some of the wastewater is evaporated, an unknown amount of untreated sewage escapes.
“And it all makes its way to Lightner Creek,” Harris said. “And of course, untreated or partially treated sewage certainly creates a concern for public health and the environment.”
The Animas River has suffered from elevated levels of E. coli from human waste in recent years, especially near the Colorado-New Mexico border – as confirmed by a yearlong study from the Animas Watershed Partnership.
“The public should have some concern about the recreational use of these rivers,” New Mexico State University biologist Geoffrey Smith told The Durango Herald last year.
Harris said it’s difficult to determine just how much waste is leeching into the creek, as the mobile home park’s owner has not updated the facility or hired professionals to evaluate the situation. The park submits monthly levels of discharges – which are in violation of the Clean Water Act – but Harris said the state believes those numbers are unreliable.
“It’s really not normal in this day and age,” Harris said of the mobile home park’s cesspool. “Those types of facilities have come a long way. There are much better options.”
Harris said it took a few years to assertively address the park’s violations because of limited resources within the division and more significant polluters in the state took precedent. But, he said, the time has come to bring the park into compliance.
“It’s just gone on too long,” he said.