NACWA Scores Win for “Utility of the Future” on Resource Recovery

Jan 24, 2017


After several years of advocacy with senior policy makers at EPA, NACWA has secured a policy determination from the Agency clarifying the status of materials recovered from the wastewater treatment process that will create a pathway for more resource recovery into the future.  Ellen Gilinsky, former Associate Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water, signed a letter to NACWA in the final days of the Obama Administration laying out the Agency’s current thinking on the regulatory status of recovered materials.  The letter outlines a process for the clean water community to seek an EPA determination, on a case-by-case basis, that resources recovered from the treatment process, which will be land-applied such as struvite used in fertilizer, can pass out of regulation under the Clean Water Act. 

This is not the clear determination that NACWA had urged the Agency to make – that such materials in all cases should be handled as products, not regulated wastes – but it is an important step in the right direction to preserve the practice of struvite recovery and open the door to broader resource recovery opportunities.  The policy letter discusses two scenarios:

  1. It affirms that products from the wastewater treatment process/sewage sludge that are not land-applied, land-disposed or incinerated, but instead are sold into a commodity market, are outside the scope of the Clean Water Act’s Part 503 regulations.  EPA’s letter uses the example of precious metals recovered from the process for this scenario.

  2. EPA notes that the situation is “more complicated” when the product is land-applied, land-disposed or incinerated.  The letter provides an opportunity for a case-by-case determination by EPA that a product, like struvite, that is applied to the land is not subject to the Part 503 regulations.  EPA outlines what information it will look to receive in reviewing requests for these case-by-case determinations.

NACWA had advocated for a more clear-cut exemption for these products, stating that Part 503 does not apply, but EPA staff expressed concerns that materials applied to land should first meet some standards to ensure that public health and the environment are protected.  

EPA’s technical staff had prepared a policy document stating simply that these materials were regulated under Part 503, but NACWA worked with its members and EPA senior managers to craft a more balanced approach that would allow for resources to be recovered and reused with certain conditions, while also providing EPA staff the assurance that these materials were not creating a health or environmental danger.  Without other regulations to look to, the Agency is deferring to its Part 503 Class A EQ standards as the benchmark for these materials.  Meeting these standards, including the time and temperature requirements for pathogens, is still presenting challenges for some struvite products, and NACWA will be working with the incoming administration to address these remaining technical issues.

This is a significant win for the Utility of the Future program, and for those NACWA members exploring resource recovery opportunities.  NACWA will continue to build on this success to further enhance the ability to recover and reuse the valuable materials in wastewater.  A special thanks to our members who have been working closely with us on this issue.

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