The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in the process of sending a survey to every publicly owned wastewater treatment plant (POTW) in the country. If you have not already received the survey, it will arrive via U.S. Mail soon at each of your treatment facilities that have a Clean Water Act permit. The survey – the first phase in a planned, 5-year study of the nutrient performance of secondary treatment plants – is intended to establish a baseline from which EPA will select utilities for further study. EPA hopes the study will identify opportunities for low-cost nutrient removal through optimization of the secondary treatment process.
NACWA wants to ensure its members and the broader clean water community are fully informed as they evaluate whether to complete the survey and is hosting a free webinar to provide additional information for the clean water community. NACWA has encouraged EPA to look for better ways, other than this 5-year study, to deploy its resources to achieve nutrient reductions through technical assistance much sooner but has worked with EPA to refine the survey and minimize its burden as outlined below.
While every utility should assess whether it will respond to the survey, NACWA’s Board of Directors believes it is in the best interests of the Association’s members to ensure that any data EPA does collect are as complete and accurate as possible.
NACWA Advocacy Results in Improvements
NACWA has actively engaged EPA on this issue since 2016 to minimize the impact of the survey on the utility community, resulting in the following improvements:
- The survey is entirely voluntary – EPA initially wanted a mandatory survey, with responses compelled under Section 308 of the Clean Water Act, but NACWA pushed back and EPA agreed to make the survey voluntary.
- To address concerns about utilities providing data, along with facility identifying information, that could be used in 3rd party lawsuits or EPA enforcement, EPA is clarifying that utilities that opt to complete they survey may choose to complete only the first part of the survey without providing any monitoring data.
- The survey presents less of a burden to utilities than earlier versions – One of the reasons NACWA resisted a mandatory survey was the length of the survey and the amount of time it would take utilities to complete. EPA has addressed NACWA’s concerns to some extent, reducing the number of questions and simplifying the questionnaire, especially for small utilities. But some utilities may still find it difficult to provide all of the information EPA is requesting.
- The survey questions have been modified to remove much of the content that may have raised concerns for utilities – earlier versions of the survey included questions about treatment practices, including management of peak wet weather flows, that would have put utilities in a difficult position when evaluating whether to respond. The most recent draft of the survey made available to NACWA addressed many of the NACWA’s concerns, but some problematic content remained.
NACWA is concerned that the data EPA collects from the study could be used in the future to support efforts to modify the definition of secondary treatment. In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups petitioned EPA to modify secondary treatment to include the removal of nitrogen and phosphorus as part of the technology-based standard that all POTWs must meet.
NACWA’s advocacy was successful in demonstrating that such a move was contrary to Congressional intent in the drafting of the Clean Water Act and would waste resources in requiring removals where water quality issues were not present. EPA ultimately denied that petition. Any new data, such as the information that EPA’s new study will collect, could provide further ammunition for the environmental NGO community to renew its efforts.
In addition, one of EPA’s objectives for the study is that it will identify opportunities to deploy low-cost nutrient removal through treatment plant optimization. While this is an option for some treatment plants, it may not work for all plants and can impact the plants treatment capacity. NACWA believes there are more effective ways to identify these opportunities for low-cost nutrient removal at treatment plants and questions the time and resources EPA is dedicating to this study. EPA’s continued focus on making incremental improvements in nutrient levels from point sources ignores broader opportunities to encourage utilities to look for innovative ways to reduce nutrients through watershed solutions, including partnerships with nonpoint sources.
What Should Your Utility Do?
Utilities should discuss internally if and how they plan to respond to EPA’s survey. The entire survey is voluntary and utilities uncomfortable with sharing any of the requested information with EPA should evaluate the pros and cons. Again, EPA is stressing that utilities can complete the first part of the survey without providing any monitoring data.
The data will be made publicly available through an EPA database in the future. While the public database will not include utility identifying information, that information will be accessible to anyone using the Freedom of Information Act and would be available internally to EPA.