Is the water pollution pendulum about to swing back?

Published July 28th, 2016

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

Wastewater treatment policy is a continuous battle between two things nobody likes: water pollution, and paying to clean it up. I was reminded of this fact by a couple of stories in the July issue of GWI. The first was an analysis of US discharge permit violations data from the Environmental Protection Agency. It showed that 65% of all major utility wastewater treatment facilities are not in compliance with their permits in one way or another, and of the 334 major facilities which are currently most seriously violating their discharge permits, three quarters are municipal wastewater treatment plants. Only one quarter are the industrial facilities that the Clean Water Acts were originally introduced to clamp down upon, and although there are more major municipal wastewater facilities than industrial facilities, the municipal facilities are 50% more likely to be in serious violation of their effluent permits. The difference is that the EPA can go after industrial polluters with a big stick (the largest fine for an industrial discharge violation last year was $41 million), but it has to handle municipalities more carefully. Mayors feel that federal regulations should be funded by federal money, and drag their heels when it comes to committing ratepayers’ money to solving the problem. Fines are considered counter-productive.

The second story is Debra Coy’s commentary on Florida’s slimageddon – that is to say the algal bloom that coated South Florida’s beaches with green gloop for the 4th July as a result of an unusually large release of eutrophic water from Lake Okeechobee. At the heart of the problem is an excess of nitrates and phosphates coming into the water systems from a range of different sources, including agriculture, lawn irrigation, and municipal wastewater. As Coy points out, it is a difficult problem to address because most of the problem is due to non-point source pollution, but the easiest solution – introducing nutrient removal in wastewater treatment plants – is expensive and doesn’t do anything for the non-point source element. The crisis also has a bit of a back story. In 2009, a group of environmentalists took the EPA to court in order to force it to require the state of Florida to regulate the nutrients in freshwater bodies according to strict numerical criteria. At the time, the EPA estimated that this would cost the state $8.4 billion a year in additional capital investment. In 2013 a compromise was reached, with the EPA revising its numerical nutrient criteria rules, and downgrading its spending estimates to between $50 million and $150 million a year.

Whether people have a greater appetite for pollution or utility spending doesn’t seem to be quite as political as one might have thought. Census Bureau data shows that spending on sewage and waste disposal rose by 58% between 2003 and 2008 during the Bush presidency, but fell by 6% between 2008 and 2015 under the Obama administration. The most recently published (May 2016) figures show a 4.1% year-on-year decline. Donald Trump may be campaigning to close down the EPA, but it is still a brave politician who can stand knee-deep in toxic guacamole on a Florida beach on Independence Day and say that America doesn’t need to worry about nutrients in the water any more. With pollution incidents continuing to attract widespread news coverage and the economy in a reasonably robust condition, utility spending starts to look more attractive than the alternatives.