US Inspector General report updates case against hazardous industrial waste into sewers

The case against allowing hazardous industrial waste to be discharged into sewers received a boost this week with the release of a report from the US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General. The report carries the self-explanatory title More Action Is Needed to Protect Water Resources From Unmonitored Hazardous Chemicals. As in Canada, the US EPA is responsible for discharges from sewage treatment plants while the municipalities that own the sewer systems are responsible for allowing or not allowing industry (and householders) to discharge to sewer systems. The problem arises in part because historically municipalities were led to believe that sewage treatment plants could detoxify almost anything. Today we know that sewage treatment plants are good at dealing with human waste and some biodegradable wastes but are not effective at dealing with hazardous materials including much of the toxic waste that is discharged by industry to the sewers.

Among the points made by the Inspector General’s report:

  • US EPA regulations are not effective in controlling the discharge of hundreds of hazardous chemicals to surface waters such as lakes and streams.
  • This is due to a general regulatory focus on the priority pollutants list that has not been updated since 1981, limited monitoring
    requirements, limited coordination between EPA offices, a lack of tracking hazardous waste notifications required for submittal by industrial users, or a lack of knowledge of discharges reported by industrial users under the Toxics Release Inventory.
  • The US TRI Program currently covers 683 chemicals and chemical categories including many, but not all, hazardous chemicals. [Canada’s equivalent, the National Pollutant Release Inventory, covers 346 substances.]
  • EPA has not taken actions to address discharges of hundreds of hazardous chemicals from sewage treatment plants.
  • Sewage treatment plant staff do not monitor for hazardous chemicals discharged by industrial users.
  • Hundreds of hazardous chemicals are not listed as clean water act priority pollutants.
  • Under the general pretreatment regulations, industrial users are required to notify the sewage treatment plant, the EPA Regional Waste Management Division Director, and state hazardous waste authorities in writing of any discharge into the
    sewage treatment plant of a substance, which, if otherwise disposed of, would be a hazardous waste. This refers to RCRA hazardous wastes. However, when EPA staff were asked about these notifications, there was a general lack of awareness
    of the requirement.
  • Whole effluent toxicity tests are not effectively used for monitoring and enforcement.
  • Some sewage treatment plant operators believed, incorrectly, that monitoring of toxic chemicals was not necessary because the chemicals in question should be metabolized and rendered harmless in the sewage treatment process.
  • US EPA has agreed with a set of recommendations made by the Inspector General, including a review of chemicals monitored nationwide in sewage treatment plant discharges.

GallonDaily repeats its prediction that discharge of industrial wastes to sewers will be severely restricted within five to ten years.

The full 20 page report is available at http://www.epa.gov/oig/reports/2014/20140929-14-P-0363.pdf

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