US wastewater under pressure

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Private industry used to be the source of America’s worst pollution. A survey published this month shows that municipal wastewater treatment plants are now by far the largest source of pollution in America’s rivers.

The weakness of America’s wastewater infrastructure was exposed this month, as a report based on Environmental Protection Agency data showed that 53% of major wastewater facilities exceeded their discharge limits during the 2005 – the most recent year for which data is available.

Although the facilities covered include some large industrial plants, 87% of the plants listed in the report are municipal wastewater treatment plants, according to GWI’s analysis of the data.

The data was collected by US Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG) under the Freedom of Information Act to highlight the outlook for the Clean Water Act, 35 years after it was first enacted. The findings are a vivid illustration of how the nature of water pollution has changed since the Act came into force in 1972.

The legislation was conceived so as to protect America from the kind of gross industrial pollution which led to the Cuyahoga river catching fire in 1969. The Clean Water Act introduced the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a permitting system which today remains America’s most potent protector of water quality. Those who bring about a successful prosecution of a violator are rewarded with a share of the fines, creating a lucrative source of income for environmental pressure groups with a legal bent. This system has successfully addressed the issue of pollution by private industry, but discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants remain a significant problem.

US PIRG is advocating stricter regulation of those who f lout their discharge permits, and more funding through state revolving funds and direct federal grants and subsidies for investment in clean water projects.

Two specific bills, the State Revolving Fund Act and the Water Quality Improvement Act, aimed at improving funding for municipal wastewater systems, are currently going through Congress (see box below). There is some doubt as to whether they will make it into law. The President has promised to veto the major piece of drinking water finance legislation currently going through the legislative process – the Water Resources Development Act. Proponents of the bill are currently trying to raise support to over-ride the veto.

Currently fewer than 5% of America’s wastewater utilities are privately financed.