ORIGIN OF ENVIRONMENTAL, SAFETY AND HEALTH REGULATIONS
In the past, state and federal governments did not regulate the disposal of domestic and industrial wastewaters. This situation led to disposal practices that left much to be desired. Municipal wastewater was simply dumped into rivers and lakes and industrial wastes were buried, discharged to surface waters and even pumped underground. Because of the sparse population of our state and the fact that most of our rivers are fast flowing, the pollution problems of the past were not always as obvious as in heavily populated states with slow moving rivers and estuaries. Whether obvious or not, environmental pollution problems are the result of allowing un-restricted practices. The laws that have been enacted by the state and federal governments for the purposes of environmental protection represent the recognition by the society at large that it is in our best interest to protect the quality of our air, soil and water.
Along these same lines, laws have been developed to protect workers from unsafe conditions on the job. In the United States in the past, (and in other countries today), there were no safety protections for workers. This often left employees in the position of working in unsafe conditions or finding another job. Now laws are in place to protect employees from hazards associated with their work. These protections are particularly important to wastewater treatment plant operators and wastewater collection system operators because of the danger inherent in these professions.
What follows is an overview of the environmental, safety and health regulations that pertain to the wastewater treatment field. This overview is not intended for regulatory decision-making. For the purposes of meeting regulatory requirements, refer to the actual statute.
FEDERAL CLEAN WATER ACT The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the legislative basis for federal water pollution control regulations. Originally passed in 1972 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the primary stated goal of the CWA is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters”. One aim of the CWA was to make all of the nation’s waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1983. Much progress has been made toward the goals, but much more work needs to be done. Now restated to say “full body contact”.
The primary elements of the CWA include:
A system of minimum national effluent standards based upon available treatment technology;
A system of water quality standards;
A discharge permit program, known as the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which provides enforceable limitations on dischargers;
A set of provisions for special problems such as toxic chemicals and oil discharges; and
A construction grand/loan program for Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs).
Wastewater treatment systems that discharge into surface waters of the United States are required by the CWA to have a NPDES permit. NPDES permits require a minimum level of treatment (based upon secondary treatment processes). Other limitations may be imposed if it is deemed necessary to protect the water quality of the receiving waters. Most states have enacted laws that give the state the authority to issue NPDES permits. This is known as “primacy”. NPDES permits are typically issued for a period of five (5) years. Application for renewal is the responsibility of the permit holder – 180 days prior to expiration.
The limitations set forth in individual NPDES permits can vary, limitations are placed on the loading of BOD and TSS that can be released into the receiving stream (measured in lbs./ day).
The NPDES permitting program provides for “self monitoring”. This means that the permit holder can perform the laboratory tests used to prove permit compliance in their own laboratory provided the tests are done in accordance with specific methods. Most medium to large treatment plants in New Mexico with NPDES permits perform self monitoring, while the smaller plants use contract laboratory services to analyze some or all of their effluent samples.
NPDES permits also provide for inspection of the treatment works and collection of compliance verification samples by the issuing agency. The types of permit violations that can be identified during a inspection include: failure to practice proper sampling, monitoring and reporting, failure to properly operate and maintain the treatment works, failure to properly perform laboratory analysis of reporting samples, allowing industrial wastes to be discharged into the collection system, and improper sludge disposal/re-use practices. Permit violations can result in fines and even criminal prosecution.