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How to Avoid an EPA Wastewater Violation

By: Tom Frankel
Post Date: December 27th 2023

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Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) violations come with serious consequences ranging from hefty fines to incarceration. Although the EPA mostly investigates crimes committed by organizations knowingly violating the law, unknowing individuals can be prosecuted for EPA violations too. If a defendant is found guilty, they may have to pay penalties, correct the violation, reimburse the government or others for cleanup assistance, face jail time or all of the above.

Becoming familiar with EPA regulations and investing in equipment maintenance and employee training are critical steps in keeping a clean record — and facility — and avoiding any risk of incurring these consequences.

The EPA and the Clean Water Act

The EPA enforces the Clean Water Act to regulate pollutants discharged into United States waters. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA implemented a permit program called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

NPDES permits are issued to any facility that discharges wastewater directly into rivers, streams, lakes and other bodies of water. NPDES mainly involves effluent limitations.

For industrial and commercial processing plants, the EPA enforces the National Pretreatment Program, which is part of NPDES. The National Pretreatment Program aims to keep the most toxic pollutants from reaching publicly owned treatment works (POTW).

POTWs treat common household and biodegradable industrial waste — not highly toxic or unconventional commercial or industrial waste. If processing plants do not comply with pretreatment standards, they might discharge waste that POTWs can’t treat. The untreated toxic waste will reach local waters, potentially causing significant environmental harm.

The EPA may give POTWs the authority to implement their own pretreatment program after approval. In such a case, it’s the POTW’s job to create and implement an effective plan.

Common Compliance Issues

The following compliance issues can lead wastewater treatment plants to discharge pathogens, suspended solids and oxygen-demanding substances at noncompliance levels:

Regarding wastewater pretreatment, the illegal discharge of pollutants is a common EPA violation that warrants an investigation. To illustrate, the EPA provides this example: A manager at a metal finishing facility instructs employees to skip wastewater treatment to avoid buying treatment chemicals. This decision leads to sending untreated polluted water to the sewage system and violating the Clean Water Act.

Compliance Tips for Wastewater Treatment

Wastewater treatment and processing plants may face unique challenges that make it difficult to stay compliant. These include the need for more funding to maintain and upgrade systems or invest in operator training. Still, addressing problems before they become violations is necessary to avoid fines and legal issues.

Here’s a list of tips to help facilities avoid EPA violations:

1. Seek Resources and Additional Funding

Inadequate resources and funding can prevent wastewater treatment facilities and processing plants from maintaining their systems, quickly leading to a poorly run operation and compliance issues.

Organizations that face financial challenges should consider looking into available loans, grants and other resources. The EPA recommends contacting an Environmental Finance Center to see available options.

2. Ensure Operators Are Properly Trained

A facility can only stay compliant if employees are trained. For instance, if employees don’t know enough about controlling the activated sludge process, they won’t be able to troubleshoot or recognize when there’s a problem.

Facilities can ensure employees are adequately trained by contacting professional organizations such as the Association of Clean Water Administrators, the EPA, and state and local government agencies.

Ensure Operators Are Properly Trained

SSI Aeration, Inc. offers staff training as well. We can help wastewater treatment plants operate as efficiently as possible by covering topics like maintenance and troubleshooting.

3. Keep Standard Operating Procedures Handy

Any plant that treats wastewater, no matter the size, must have standard operating procedures (SOPs) easily accessible to employees. An SOP is a set of routine instructions that enables workers to perform jobs correctly and consistently.

For example, an SOP might provide instructions for maintaining and calibrating equipment. These instructions should be written with NPDES compliance in mind.

4. Run a Settleability Test

The activated sludge process is essential to staying compliant because it’s crucial to producing high-quality effluent. A settleability test involves analyzing the characteristics of mixed liquor suspended solids that occur during the activated sludge process.

The test provides valuable insight into sludge quality. It helps operators identify problems like rising sludge or biomass that doesn’t settle properly so they can fix these issues before they lead to violations.

5. Enlist an Engineer

EPA violations commonly result from changes in the influent. If the local population increases or decreases, the volume and strength of the influent changes. Plant operators need to assess and modify their systems accordingly to ensure a system successfully treats the new influent level.

However, they don’t need to change their systems alone — engineers are on standby, ready to help. An engineer will perform the necessary calculations and recommend solutions to support the plant’s compliance efforts.

6. Create a Preventive Maintenance Program

Maintaining a wastewater treatment system extends equipment life span, increases operational efficiency and helps prevent equipment failure and resulting compliance issues.

A solid maintenance program recognizes the importance of preventive maintenance and identifying and solving equipment issues before they expand. An effective maintenance program should involve routine equipment inspections, calibration, adjustments and lubrication. Facilities can create a maintenance program by gathering equipment manuals and developing schedules to inspect and maintain equipment.

Example of an EPA Violation

EPA violations have resulted in billions of dollars in fines since the Clean Water Act was implemented. The EPA issued over $14 billion in penalties from 2011 to 2021.

To illustrate, consider an EPA violation case involving the City of Colorado Springs municipal stormwater management system. Stormwater pollution can significantly impact drinking water quality and affect the local wildlife, which was the case here. Due to NPDES permit violations, the city was given a $1 million penalty and required to lessen the damage caused to local streams and tributaries by launching restoration projects.

How to Report EPA Violations

Anyone can report an EPA violation if they suspect environmentally harmful activities. Individuals can report a violation over the phone by contacting their regional EPA office. If they want a faster reply, the EPA recommends filing a report online using this form.

SSI Aeration, Inc. Can Help

Maintaining EPA compliance doesn’t have to be a source of anxiety. At SSI Aeration, Inc., we can help solve your compliance issues before they begin.

We offer innovative wastewater treatment equipment, staff training and engineering services to industrial and sewage wastewater treatment plants. Contact us today to learn more about our services and products.

SSI Aeration, Inc. Can Help