EPA sues Mason for water contamination


Mason has agreed to pay a $20,000 fine for the discharge of diesel fuel oil and additional Environmental Protection Agency violations.

On Jan. 17, 2015, Mason’s aboveground Central Heating and Cooling Plant in Fairfax discharged 4,100 gallons of fuel oil, 3,500 gallons of which “entered a storm drain and emptied into an unnamed tributary of Rabbit Branch,” the EPA’s Roy Seneca said via email.

Upon discovery, Mason reported the incident to the National Response Center at 7:39 p.m. the same day, Seneca said.

The aim of this Mason storage facility is to heat water, “which is then circulated throughout the campus to heat buildings,” Michael Sandler, Mason’s director of Strategic Communication, wrote via email.


Seneca added that Mason found the discharge was the result of human error.

Mason’s response to an EPA information request revealed that “the discharge was the result of a mistake during a routine fuel circulation process… tank valves were opened in an incorrect sequence resulting in an overfill and subsequent discharge from emergency vent pipes,” Seneca said.

This oil discharge violates Section 311 of the Clean Water Act, which forbids the discharge of oil to navigable waters or adjoining shorelines, according to the EPA.

Upon uncovering the discharge, Mason acted swiftly to remedy the situation.

“Following the discovery of the spill, the university acted immediately to recover the spilled oil and remove contaminated soil. A notice went out to the entire campus that day alerting them to the spill,” Sandler said. “The university then worked with federal and state authorities over the next 12 months to conduct monitoring to ensure there were no lingering impacts on human health or the environment, and to improve existing control measures to prevent overflows from happening in the future.”

The EPA believes that Mason was diligent in its immediate response to the spill, Seneca said.

“[Mason] initiated an emergency response in accordance with its integrated contingency plan. Upon completion of response efforts, George Mason instituted several changes to prevent recurrence,” Seneca said.

Seneca added that the changes implemented by Mason consisted of the development of new procedures that require additional personnel for valve opening operations and a formalized training program for tank operations in addition to the installation of cameras and high-level alarms for fuel tanks. Although the EPA does not require these changes, the agency agreed that they will help prevent future spills.

According to the EPA, Mason’s timely response prevented the oil from reaching the Potomac River, thus leaving the Potomac River unharmed. However, the incident “caused a sheen upon the surface of the unnamed tributary of Rabbit Branch,” according to the legal settlement.

As a result of this spill, the EPA conducted a follow-up visit to Mason’s storage facility June 2, 2015. The EPA found Mason in violation of several Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure regulations, though none of these caused or had an impact on the oil spill in January, Seneca said. Most of the regulations violated were in relation to an insufficient written plan for the facility and insufficient procedures for record keeping.

Once notified of the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure violations determined from the inspection, Mason “quickly corrected the issues and returned to compliance,” Seneca said.

Mason settled to pay a penalty of $20,964 for both the oil spill and regulatory violations. The amount will be added to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which provides funding for responses to oil spills.

“The fund is an active federal fund critical to ensure swift federal response to oil spills,” Seneca said.

According to Seneca, Congress enacted the fund shortly after the major Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in an effort to ensure available funds to respond to future oil spills. In 1990, the Oil Pollution Act Congress passed authorized the U.S. Coast Guard to direct funding from the Oil Liability Trust Fund to federal responders from the U.S. Coast Guard to remedy spills on shorelines and the EPA to remedy spills inland.


Although Mason has never been fined under Section 311 of the Clean Water Act prior to the January 2015 spill, Mason has had previous encounters with the EPA.

In December 2000, Mason self-disclosed a formal Clean Water Act/National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems discharge without a permit. In March 2014, Mason was cited for “Formal Clean Water Act/National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems Permit Violations” and was charged a penalty of $12,000, the EPA’s Joan Schafer said.

Chaitanya Ravi, a professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, noted the current situation in the Chesapeake Bay as a cautionary tale for the importance of keeping our waters clean.

“Take the Chesapeake Bay fisheries, that’s a good example of an industry that has been decimated. There was once a thriving fishing industry in the bay area, but today, we don’t have anything resembling that, or at least they are a dwindling industry because of the sheer pollution,” Ravi said.

Water pollution not only impacts the organisms that inhabit the area, but also the health of humans living nearby. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, polluted water impacts our drinking water, our food and our way of life.

“There is a monetary cost to all of this. If you don’t prevent this [water pollution], then you compromise your fishing industry, you compromise your tourism and then you basically bring down the water quality and it affects the aquatic life in the bay as well. There is a strong rational for us to keep our waters clean… [in order to] broaden our economic base,” Ravi said.