Camas and Lacamas Shores HOA receive notice of citizens intent to sue via federal Clean Water Act

Failed biofilter is the only known source of pollution contributing to poor lake water quality

Steve Bang’s patience has finally run out. After seven years of discussions with the Lacamas Shores Homeowners Association (LSHOA), city of Camas staff, council members, and state representatives and agencies, Bang’s attorneys at Plauché & Carr LLP  sent a notice of intent to sue for violating federal clean water standards. 

The past three years have seen increasing toxic algae blooms in Lacamas, Round, and Hidden Leaf lakes. Late last week, the Clark County Public Health Department issued another public health warning regarding toxic algae at Lacamas and Round lakes due to a reading of toxins three times higher than any recorded test for either lake.

Bang has filed a citizen’s action to sue his own HOA and the city of Camas for violating the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Congress deems clean water so important that it specifically authorized citizens to file suit when the government fails to stop water pollution.   

His lawsuit states the following.

“The HOA and the City have violated and are violating 33 U.S.C. § 1311 and 33 U.S.C. § 1342 by discharging pollutants from the Lacamas Shores biofilter treatment facility (“Biofilter”), located on Clark County Tax Lot 84839000, into Lacamas Lake and its adjoining wetlands without a discharge permit. These violations have occurred since at least September 23, 2020 and are ongoing.”   

The failed biofilter of the Lacamas Shores subdivision is the only known source of pollution being added to Lacamas Lake water. Resident Steve Bang has notified both the homeowners association and the city of Camas that he intends to file a Clean Water Act lawsuit in 60 days. Graphic from Marie Callerame
The failed biofilter of the Lacamas Shores subdivision is the only known source of pollution being added to Lacamas Lake water. Resident Steve Bang has notified both the homeowners association and the city of Camas that he intends to file a Clean Water Act lawsuit in 60 days. Graphic from Marie Callerame

“Someone has to do something, and right now the Lacamas Shores biofilter facility is the only currently known and controllable source of pollution,” Bang said.

Last fall, a group of citizens spent their own time and money to test both input and output water quality at multiple locations of the LSHOA biofilter. Instead of cleaning the stormwater, the biofilter was adding pollutants to the water, the results revealed.

Marie Callerame was an integral part of the citizen effort to collect the data. She compiled an extremely thorough report she provided to both the city and the LSHOA in February. All the information she has compiled is posted on this website

In 2020, Lacamas Lake tested positive for harmful algae toxins 26 out of 29 times between April and October according to Callerame. The website summarizes the results of the report, stating: 

“Surprisingly, the stormwater coming into the biofilter is the same or cleaner than it was during the same time of year in the early 1990’s.  Unfortunately, unlike the early 90’s,  the biofilter is not filtering out the phosphorus or suspended solids.  Instead, it is adding the pollutants it collected throughout the past 20+ years back into the water and into the lake.”

Under the Federal Clean Water Act, the fines can be significant, but once collected they do not go to the citizen. The CWA does allow for the citizen (Bang) to be reimbursed for his attorney’s fees,.although the initial outlay of those expenses can be very high. This is a built-in deterrent to frivolous citizen lawsuits.

Leslie Lewallen, an attorney and candidate for Camas City Council, shared the following on social media.

“In a short 60 days, the City of Camas could be on the hook for federal fines as much as $326,000 a day for ignoring known pollutants that are seeping into Lacamas Lake. Let that sink in. That’s $9.9 million dollars a month in fines our city will have to pay- because a private HOA has failed to maintain its biofilter and the city is part of the reason why.”

In July 2017, the LSHOA gave a proposal to the city of Camas. They wanted to perform maintenance on the biofilter. “We would like to return parts of the system to a healthy well-vegetated widespread wetland buffer habitat with grasses, and other wetland plants for proper bio-filtration.” Expected costs for their proposal was about $30,000.

In Feb. 2018, the Camas city attorney wrote the LSHOA. He claimed the biofilter was a “wetland” rather than a biofilter. But later stated the LSHOA stormwater facility should do three things. 

  • Be capable of accepting the stormwater coming into it from its intake;
  • Effectively treat the stormwater; and
  • Provide for appropriate outfalls of treated stormwater.

He then demanded a “conditional use permit be obtained” by the HOA. 

Phosphorus can “feed” toxic algae blooms in lake water. Citizens measured the amount of phosphorus and total suspended solids in water entering and departing the Lacamas Shores subdivision biofilter. This historial graphic shows a significant increase in phosphorus levels in 2020, exceeding federal water quality standards. Graphic from Marie Callerame

A month later, a staff member of the Washington State Department of Ecology sent a letter to the city. It stated: “I have found no evidence to show that the wetland was constructed . . . for the purpose of stormwater treatment or detention.” They said they were “unlikely to approve a conditional use permit”.

“This was unbelievable,” said Bang earlier this year. HOA bylaws state there is a biofilter that must be maintained. “The deed to my property obligates each and every homeowner to maintain the biofilter and stormwater system. The Washington Shoreline Hearings Board mandated the biofilter be created as part of the original development permit. They must have not been looking,” he said.

The city apparently forbade the LSHOA from repairing their biofilter, based upon the DOE letter.

In 2020, to many residents, it seemed like there was almost no time there weren’t “caution” or “warning” signs displayed around the lake. Reported testing results indicated toxic algae blooms occurred over a dozen times. Various “toxins” exceeded state guidelines multiple times during the year. Microcyctin exceeded state guidelines 14 times and anatoxin exceeded guidelines once.

Callerame is one of seven Camas citizens on a special board the City Council created to provide input on cleaning up the lake water. Last week she reported the following. 

“Ecology’s website just populated this morning with a sample collected 8/9.  The result for microcystin is higher than it has EVER been recorded in our lakes – 3 times higher than the highest reading!  It measured as 261 µg/L.  This is over 40 times the state guideline of 6 µg/L, well over dog-kill level.” 

The City Council allocated $300,000 in their two-year budget for lake water quality issues. It spent $106,400 for a consultant to further study lake water quality issues. It also received $215,000 in grants. The council members expect a report next spring.

Randal Friedman is a Camas resident who worked on a variety of environmental issues for 32 years as a civilian serving the Navy. He heard about the possible lawsuit regarding CWA violations. “I can assure you this is not a delicate tool,” he said. 

He hopes the city and the HOA take the threat seriously. He believes it is also a question of leadership. 

“If Camas wants the county and state to ratchet up the regulation of other private (and public) lands in the Lacamas Lake watershed, they better start in their own backyard,” he said.

Bang indicated he will file the lawsuit in 60 days, unless they solve the problem first.  The notice and all the relevant information can be found here.

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Meghan
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Meghan
1 month ago

So there is/was supposed to be a biofilter but it hasn’t been maintained because the city refuses to fund repairs and updates so pollutants have built up beyond the wetland’s ability to absorb and is now leaking into the larger water system and causing toxic algae blooms? Did I interpret that correctly? Has anybody done an analysis of what would be required to make the biofilter effective?

John Ley
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John Ley
1 month ago
Reply to  Meghan

Meghan —

You are “close”, but not quite.

The maintenance of the failed biofilter is the responsibility of the Lacamas Shores Homeowners Association. All the “costs” for that maintenance would be theirs, not the cities responsibility.

They asked the city for permission to do some work to repair the failed biofilter roughly 4 years ago. Instead of encouraging the LSHOA to do the repairs, the city demanded they get a state permit before proceeding. The state said they wouldn’t likely give the HOA a permit.

The “fix” should cost the city of Camas nothing. But instead, Camas has allocated $300,000 of the people’s tax dollars to “study” the problem.

There is only ONE “known” source of pollution (excessive phosphorus) being dumped into Lacamas Lake — the LSHOA biofilter. The city should DEMAND it be fixed immediately.

There are many other possible “sources” of stormwater coming into the lake that “may” or “may not” be exceeding federal water standards. But fixing the one known source should be the easy, first step in addressing lake water quality.

Matt
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Matt
1 month ago
Reply to  John Ley

Everyone is in favor of getting the BioFilter fixed… I don’t know anyone in the LSHOA who is against it. The red tape here is idiotic. Making the lake clean and safe should be a priority for everyone as it is such a vital part of the community.

The $300k is also not for the purpose of chasing down the LSHOA, its for engineering changes needed to improve the water quality. I am also pretty skeptical that the houses around the lake are the primary cause of the algae bloom, but its much harder to chase down farms/dairies in Vancouver up stream.

One proposal I’ve heard which seemed sensible was to make it so that lacamas creek which is flows through farmland in Vancouver is not the only source of water. Instead they could pump/redirect water from the Columbia or Washougal river in to offset.

There is no doubt this is not a trivial problem, but it needs to be solved. LSHOA is an easy target to blame, but lets be real here… they arent defying the city and want to comply. They likely arent the primary cause, but could contribute to cleaning it up regardless. More needs to be done that to clear foliage on 2 acres of land and “fix the biofilter”.

Marie Tabata
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Marie Tabata
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt

How much would redirecting parts of another river cost? That sounds crazy expense. I think stopping all major polluters, starting with this one, makes more sense. Oddly enough, it was not until the last few months (maybe February) that “everyone” was in favor of fixing the Biofilter. Many currently on the Board have been saying that nothing can be done for the past 5-10 years.

Phil Haggerty
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Phil Haggerty
1 month ago

Hats off to Mr Bang for stepping up for all of us lake users. His personal investment of time, money and character is commendable. Camas, stop spending money on endless consultants and do your job! Such as, hold the HOA accountable to return the bio filter to it original state and purpose.

Deborah Nagano
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Deborah Nagano
1 month ago

This is a rather amazing story. Did the DOE not understand that this situation involved the maintenance of a biofilter whose creation was required by that same agency as mitigation for the building of the subdivision? Who falsely represented to Ecology that this problem concerned not an engineered biofilter but natural shoreline wetlands? Seems like some egregious obfuscation on someone’s part.

Bryan
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Bryan
1 month ago

This is pretty interesting. Without having read through all the materials, a couple thoughts come to mind. 1) the assertion in the letter that the City is responsible is not completely convincing (though I haven’t read up on this area) because it seems the HOA could have worked its way through the relevant application/permit process (maybe there’s someplace where it’s made clear that was impossible for the HOA to do, but I haven’t seen that yet). 2) The statement that the biofilter “is the ONLY publicly known source PROVEN to be exceeding its pollution standards” (on the website) has lots of qualifiers. I don’t know whether it’s a defense for either party that other point sources contribute to the problem, but there are an awful lot of inputs to the lake, which are apparent just from taking a walk or hike along Heritage Trail, or seeing the fertilizer pellets on the roads in the Lacamas Shores neighborhood when you go for a run. Will be interesting to see how this shakes out, but it is amusing/interesting that the HOA is essentially suing itself.

John Ley
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John Ley
1 month ago
Reply to  Bryan

Brian –

The emphasis is on “proven” source of pollution being added to the water.

The citizens that collected the water from multiple locations around the biofilter didn’t have the time nor the resources to check and test the entire lake. Their goal was to either prove or disprove that the biofilter was working properly in filtering stormwater.

There are certainly other “sources” of poor water potentially being dumped into the lake. But at the moment, there is only one “known” source that exceeds state and federal water quality standards.

Marie Tabata
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Marie Tabata
1 month ago
Reply to  Bryan

The desires of the “HOA” change with every board vote. The HOA Board at times pushed and at other times pulled. What people are missing is that the CWA is a strict liability, black/white issue. “Are you polluting the water or not?” Finger pointing and excuses are not relevant to the federal judge. And while the City may be responsible now, they could easily decide that the Biofilter indeed fits many exemptions that would allow even extensive maintenance, and let the HOA handle it all by their lonesome. Then the HOA would just have to do it! Or they could fight it and waste a lot of time and money on lawyers and fines..

Doug
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Doug
1 month ago

Mr Bang could start a Go Fund Me if necessary to fund the battle. I think a quite a number of people wish him success in breaking up the regulatory log jam

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