Congress Debates Wastewater Blending Rules

Wastewater blending was defended at a House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing in April.

Jun 1st, 2005
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Wastewater blending was defended at a House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee hearing in April.

To handle excess flows during heavy rains or snowmelts, sewage plant operators sometimes treat all the wastewater with the primary clarifier, then route a portion of the peak wastewater flow that exceeds the capacity of the plant’s biological treatment unit around that unit. The flow then is recombined with the rest of the wastewater flow that went through the biological treatment unit to receive chemical disinfection treatment.

Rep. John Duncan Jr., (R-Tenn.), subcommittee chairman, said there has been a great deal of confusion and misinformation about the issue while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) works on a formal blending guidance.

“In some parts of the country, states issue permits that allow wastewater treatment plants to discharge blended wastewater during periods of heavy rain or snowmelt. Some of these permits also impose conditions requiring additional treatment of this wastewater. All of these permits require the wastewater treatment plant to meet all applicable Clean Water Act standards before it discharges blended wastewater into a river or lake,” Duncan said.

“In other parts of the country, states cannot issue permits that allow blending because the EPA Region will veto the permit. That is the situation in Tennessee.

“That means, in Tennessee and many other states, wastewater treatment plants may have to build additional treatment capacity and additional storage capacity -- which could cost over $100 million at a single plant -- to handle heavy wastewater flows that only occur once or twice a year.”

Duncan said around the country, $80 billion to $200 billion of additional infrastructure will have to be built if wastewater blending is not allowed.

John Graham of the Maryville, Tennessee Water Quality Control Department, told the subcommittee, “My ability to plan future improvements to my wastewater facility is at a complete standstill. We want to design a plant expansion that would use blending in some peak weather conditions, but can’t get this approved due to the ongoing regulatory confusion over blending.”

Senate Considers Energy Reform Bill

The Senate was considering a sweeping energy policy reform bill after the House of Representatives approved a 1,000-page bill in April with a 249-183 vote.

The House legislation would cost about $8 billion, mostly for energy production tax credits, down from about $31 billion in the last Congress. The House narrowly retained, in a 219 to 213 vote, a provision giving MTBE manufacturers protection against pollution lawsuits.

Gasoline containing MTBE has leaked from underground storage tanks and contaminated groundwater in communities across the country. Water groups have said clean up costs may total $29 billion.

Refiners say the legal protection is warranted because Congress required them to use oxygenates in reformulated gasoline. The bill also allows MTBE producers to recover up to $1.7-2 billion for investment costs.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), the Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, has vowed the Senate bill will not contain a MTBE waiver.

Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the American Water Works Association, said his group was disappointed at the House vote on MTBE.

“If it were to become law, this legislative end-run would effectively strip communities of their ability to address MTBE water contamination in court. That would saddle everyday citizens with enormous MTBE cleanup bills and the considerable burden of finding new water sources.”

Dwayne Kalynchuk, president of the American Public Works Association (APWA), said, “Small gasoline stations and communities, neither of which were responsible for the contamination, will be the ones forced to bear MTBE cleanup costs.”

In a joint letter to Congress, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors said, “Cash-strapped local governments should not be forced to bear the cost or responsibility of cleaning water contaminated by producers of MTBE who were well aware of the hazards of their product.

“Also troubling is the provision to pay $2 billion to MTBE producers to phase out their defective product, but would leave local government to their own devices on how to pay for the MTBE-contaminated water supplies.”

Sierra Club Report Targets Underground Storage Tanks

A Sierra Club report alleges leaking underground gasoline storage tanks (USTs) are a growing threat to public health.

The report claimed the federal government has refused to accept its responsibility to fund pollution cleanups, making the problem worse, and is not enforcing the principle of “the polluter pays.”

The Sierra Club noted the House energy bill would block governments from future recovery of the costs in cleaning MTBE leaks, which the group said has polluted water supplies in more than 1,800 communities in 29 states.

The Sierra Club said, “More than 100 million people drink groundwater in states where thousands of USTs are leaking and need cleanups. These sites include toxics like benzene, toluene and heavy metals that can quickly pollute groundwater, threaten public health, burden taxpayers with cleanup costs and hurts real estate values.”

The report said the nation has a backlog of 130,000 needed cleanups at leaking USTs and 9,000 new leaks are found each year.

It said a pin-prick sized hole in one fuel tank can leak 400 gallons of contamination a day, and one gallon of gasoline can pollute one million gallons of groundwater.

The report said the federal government has $2.4 billion in surplus cleanup funds - amassed from a fee on gasoline sales - but is proposing to use only 3% of this surplus.

The Sierra Club paper said taxpayer-funded state UST programs are billions of dollars in deficit. Florida leads the nation in needed cleanups with 17,544. California has 15,049 and a deficit of more than $1 billion. Michigan has 9,039 and a deficit of $1.7 billion.

Highway Bill

Water and environmental groups claimed a victory in the Senate debate on the $284 billion federal highway bill.

The Senate voted 51-49 to provide communities nearly $868 million over six years to manage flooding and pollution caused by runoff from roads and highways.

The vote defeated an amendment by Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) that would have reduced funding for the Highway Stormwater Discharge Mitigation Program.

Opposing the bond amendment were U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Association of State Water Pollution Control Administrators, the Environmental Council of States, the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, and others.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said stormwater runoff from roads, parking lots and other paved surfaces is the largest source of water pollution, occurring when stormwater overwhelms sewer pipes and treatment plants.

NRDC said more than 50,000 cities, towns and counties must now meet Clean Water Act stormwater regulations (many large cities already manage stormwater pollution) in order to meet discharge permits and other Clean Water Act regulations.

The EPA estimated the cost to comply with these regulations to be about $1 billion/year. The highway bill would earmark 2% of Surface Transportation Program funds to be used for highway stormwater discharge mitigation.

Measure Designed to Aid Rural Water Systems

Sens. Domenici and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) have introduced legislation to help rural communities, tribes and water associations construct systems to deliver potable water to homes and businesses.

The Reclamation Rural Water Supply Act would authorize the Bureau of Reclamation to establish a $20 million/year program to plan rural water delivery infrastructure and establish a loan guarantee program to help communities finance new water projects and pay for maintenance on existing systems.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Domenici is chairman and Bingaman is ranking Democrat, will consider the bill.

Domenici said, “The scarcity of water in many rural communities in the West has reached a crisis point. This bill offers desperate communities help in building new water infrastructure and rehabilitating aging water works. For many communities, this help will mean the difference between decades of prosperity and the prospect of becoming a ghost town.”

Bingaman said, “Many of the smaller communities in New Mexico would like to be planning to meet their future water needs, but water projects are expensive and typically out of reach.”

The senators said recent EPA data showed $37 billion in total funding needs for small systems serving populations of 3,300 or less. The Indian Health Service has estimated that 20,000 American Indian and Alaska native households lack potable water supplies. In many cases, small and rural communities lack the bonding capacity to raise the capital required for these projects.

Separately, the House Subcommittee on Water and Power held a hearing on how surface and groundwater storage could relieve droughts in the West.

Subcommittee chairman George Radanovich (R-Calif.), said, “New water supply projects are crucial to meeting our water needs in the West. With ongoing drought, population growth, water-use conflicts and regulatory requirements, Westerners must be proactive in storing and securing the water necessary for our families, farms, businesses and the environment.”

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