This is a sad, but quite typical, tale. Away down in the Ozarks, in the town of Willow Springs, a company by the name of Coastal Energy reigns.

Not only is Willow Springs, where U.S. 63 goes south and U.S. 60 goes east, a fairly typical Ozark community, but the Eleven Point river — a national U.S. National Scenic Riverway — runs through it. After a few miles, the Eleven Point, much larger from several tributaries adding to the flow, becomes a much-beloved “float stream” for Columbians, supports several canoe outfitters, and eventually its cool and clear waters flow into Arkansas.

Although most of the Eleven Point is picturesque and allegedly afforded the highest level of protection by both state and federal resource protection agencies, this apparently is not so just south of U.S. 60/63, even though the federal scenic river designation covers this area. On the banks of the Eleven Point River is what is referred to as a tank farm, owned and operated by Coastal Energy. The thirty-three tanks store various petroleum products from ethanol to asphalt and diesel fuel. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the total amount is 2.8 million gallons.

A similar facility in West Virginia leaked copious amounts of pollutants into the Elk River, a source of drinking water for 300,000 people. Until the pollution finally subsided, bottled water was residents' only uncontaminated water. Due to media coverage, this became a national concern, and shined an unwelcome light onto the practices of Coastal Energy. Because of the similarity to the Tank Farm in West Virginia, several complaints were filed with the Environmental Protection Agency. Those filing the complaints were hopeful that the agency would take swift and decisive action to protect citizens and the Eleven Point River.

Those hopes, as it turned out, were in vain.

While acknowledging that the facility had been in operation since 2002, EPA7 limited its “Consent Decree and Final Order” to its lack of plans in the event of a leak or heavy rains. While citing all sorts of violations in this otherwise severely limited order, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Coastal Energy a paltry $25,000 and ordered Coastal to provide some equipment to the Willow Springs Fire Department (in the event that the petroleum products caught fire).

What the agency did not even mention in the consent order was that Coastal Energy had been operating without any permit since 2002. Also not mentioned is that the Eleven Point is an Ozark/National Scenic River, which means it belongs to people from Maine to California, nor that Coastal Energy is located on an area defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as Karst Topography (an area of sinkholes and caves).

If the Environmental Protection Agency had complied with the federal Clean Water Act, it would have fined Coastal Energy up to $50,000 each day of violation or $182,500,000. That amount is clearly what the agency could and should have called for under the provisions of Section 309 of the Clean Water Act. Instead, the agency slapped Coastal Energy on the wrist, and, by the minimal fine, allowed Coastal Energy to keep on keeping on.

In short, while the Environmental Protection Agency could and should have fined Coastal up to $182.5 million, the agency chose to ignore what federal law clearly requires and settled for only $25,000.

Apparently, the Environmental Protection Agency caved in to the interest of Willow Springs and state politicians in doing little more than a wrist slap. While, arguably, Coastal Energy provides economic benefit to the town, what the agency overlooked was the potential economic devastation for communities and businesses downstream — and that the Eleven Point is a national river.

All bark, not much bite.

This is one of a two-part series. Next: the failure of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources

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