Here I go again....

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Posted by jd on January 04, 2002 at 11:02:26:

In Reply to: Pollution in Alabama - reactive solutions??? posted by Kerry Grissett on January 03, 2002 at 21:33:36:

I can't believe that I would open my mouth again in this forum since I was previously nailed to a cross while trying to help people understand pollution regulation. I am not much of a politician and do not wish to try and tell you solutions. In fact, I don't believe that anyone has the exact solutions. In my opinion, it is more complex than getting rid of the good ol' boys. In fact, which ones are we supposed to be getting rid of? Does anyone know the true root of the problem? I am not trying to start controversy, and will try to keep it brief with Clean Water Act 101.

First, a dump of my political feelings. We all know that pork barrel spending and politics are one and the same. Along with the EPA, we have OSHA that protects workers, and lots of other regulatory agencies to protect our country. We have seen trends in the past where, for example, OSHA had so much money and became so powerful, that you certainly did not want to try and manage an industrial plant. Industry is dangerous and accidents can happen. I once knew a plant that got fined, among other reasons, for allowing a chair next to a stamping machine. The logic was that an employee could prop their feet up on the machine and get hurt. The solution? First pay the fine, and then put up a curtain to reduce the temptation. My only point is that if a regulatory agency becomes too powerful and does not use some discretion with enforcement, the incentive to be honest can be diminished. For this discussion, we are mostly concerned with water resources and "midnight dumpings" that can occur in sewers or illegal disposal that contaminates groundwater. I am not saying to reduce regulation, only hinting that the system is complex and involves many issues.

So how are our local streams regulated? "The Clean Water Act" is the basis of regulation. The EPA develops basic level standards that all states must adopt and enforce. Each state must prove that they have the knowledge, resources, and procedures in place before they are allowed to become the permitting authority. The permitting program falls under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) regulations. The NPDES program not only regulates "point source" discharges, but also storm water discharges. Industry classes that are known to be "dirty" that could result in storm water draining to "waters of the US" are regulated at this time. Farmers generally get a lot of protection and are not regulated unless they are very large commercial farmers that meet certain criteria. There are also some states adopting construction stormwater permits under the NPDES program, but most rely on local soil and erosion plans approved at the local level.

If a state proves they are worthy, they become the NPDES permitting authority. All waste water treatment plants (WWTPs) are regulated by NPDES permits. Large industries that discharge directly to a creek are permitted in the same manner as WWTPs (NPDES permit). Now, in cities with large populations and lots of industries classified in the "dirty" categories, the state does not have resources to handle regulation. Therefore, the city must prepare a program to prove that they have the resources and knowledge to issue permits. In rural areas, the state assumes permitting authority.

Let us review. THE Federal NPDES program provides the basis for regulation of all point source discharges to streams and some non-point sources discharges from stormwater runoff. The EPA is the ultimate authority and takes charge when the state fails to enforce regulations. The State is the authority after the EPA approves their ability to issue NPDES permits. Finally, the city or county may be required to implement a pretreatment program to permit local authorities.

In all cases, dischargers must monitor their own discharge on a regular basis and the permitting authority must provide random monitoring. Let me tell you have difficult this can be. I once assisted a city that was violating its NPDES permit limits on a regular basis. We assumed that someone was discharging something that was affecting the performance of the WWTP. The city had only 6 industries which seemed to indicate we should be able to easily identify a potential violator. Now, you have a machine that you put in a sewer that will only do what you tell it to do. Do you tell it to take one sample every hour? Every 15 minutes? Take a bunch of sample and mix them together? Rememeber, for each sample, you have to pay a laboratory to find the "pollutants." To search for all of the EPA's priority pollutants, as well as conventional pollutants, it will set you back about $1000. If the "violator" is dumping a 55 gallon drum of concentrated stuff, it is gone down the sewer in a matter of seconds. Did you collect it? Did you continue to add "clean" water to the composite sample and dilute the sample. Levels of detection in a laboratory are finite. In addition to sampling the industries, we samples the WWTP influent. I guess we must have spent $25,000 pretty quick and had found out that all we had was normal wastewater. Since the city was violating its NPDES permit, it was then required to develop an interim strategy and then a permitting program to regulate local industries because the state did not have the resources to monitor local industries. When it was all said and done, the city has perhaps spent $250,000 to remedy the problem with an ongoing cost of $30,000 annually to implement the permitting program. I know this does not sound like much, but seemed taxing in a town of less than 10,000 people. So how did we resolve the problem? It seems that the problem corrected itself. The pressure of interviewing local industry personnel and providing indication of sewer monitoring may have sent some fear into someone. If you are the guy getting paid $8-12 an hour and your boss is not willing to legally get rid of waste you better find a new job. The Clean Water Act allows criminal prosecution of persons responsible for the dumping. I have met with many guys that work for companies "on the edge" regarding wastewater discharge quality. I suspect that some companies simply terminate employees and replace them before they get too smart.

What can you really do? First and foremost, understand that the Clean Water Act has been changed in recent years to allow civil prosecution of polluters. Some groups make a living off of suing people now. I once had the pleasure of meeting the Chattahoochee River Keepers in Georgia. They showed up in their Range Rover, wearing sandals and tie die shirts, and flipped us peace signs when coming into the meeting area. One of the first introductions was their young female lawyer. I must say that they took the time to listen to our efforts and discussions even if they did not fully understand the problem. It was kind of scary to think that they could file a lawsuit at any time if they simply did not like your answers. I would see members of groups frequently at the office of regulatory agencies reviewing files. NPDES monitoring reports are public information. In fact, you can find these reports on the EPA website and spot violations from your living room.

In my opinion, the amount of effort and money that would be required to catch all polluters is astronomical. I think it equates to the effort that would be required to protect TVA dams from terrorists in boats and on land. In the end, the risks can never be completely mitigated.

If anyone has ideas as to EXACTLY who to contact and what to say, I would like to hear about it. I honestly don’t know or I would offer to contribute. I am willing to help educate people and can probably point you in the right direction if anyone has further questions. I do believe that to have your opinion heard, it is more effective to first become educated. I hate to be critical Kerry, but if you get angry and try to simply get rid of the good ol’ boys, you have lost half the battle. Political reform is a game of calm and intelligent discussions. I guess that explains why I am not a politician!! J

Kerry, please let me know if my “training sessions” are a waste of your server space. I am trying to contribute through education rather than sit back and watch. Considering that the Clean Water Act was enacted only in the 70’s due to burning rivers, I think it has come a long way. However, I know it also has a long way to go. Just like many things in our great Country, it takes money, effort, and time to pave roads. I only glimpsed at the articles you references, but I think it is safe to say that the world has learned a lot in the last 30 years about DDT, mercury, PCBs, and other persistent pollutants. In the end, pride and respect will most certainly always be required to protect our environment regardless of environmental regulations. Regulation is only a small part of the battle – enforcement comes with a heavy price tag! Some people say that water will be worth more than gold some day. When money is a factor, people seem to get more concerned.

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