Down the Drain

Getting Toxic Waste Out of Public Sewers

Back in 1993, it didn’t take much to see that something was seriously wrong with the Chattooga River—if only because the Chattooga’s color, as it meandered through the tiny town of Trion, Georgia, often had a lot in common with a pair of new Levis. “You could pull a snapping turtle out of the water and it would be dyed blue,” remembers Jerry Brown, an area swimming pool installer and president of the Georgia Environmental Organization (GEO). Trion’s sewage treatment plant was also regularly violating most of its permit limits by spectacular margins.

But the real problem wasn’t Trion, a placid hamlet nestled in the mountains north of Atlanta. It was Mount Vernon Mills, an enormous denim-dyeing plant and the town’s biggest employer. The company was sending million of gallons of heavy-duty textile waste into the town’s treatment plant, even though that plant was completely unequipped to handle it.

Connie Davis / Southern Environmental Law Center

When industries fail to adequately pretreat the waste they pour
into local sewage plants, massive water pollution results.
Connie Davis / Southern Environmental Law Center
Connie Davis / Southern Environmental Law Center

GEO sued that November, charging Trion with repeated violations of the Clean Water Act. In a settlement the next year, Trion agreed to upgrade the plant. More important, Mount Vernon Mills would foot most of the bill, which has now topped $12 million. Why hadn’t the company acted sooner? Simple, says Brown: “Nobody ever made them before.”

And that’s a big rub in the “pretreatment” program now in place at some 1,500 public sewage treatment plants across the nation. Cities and counties are supposed to play environmental cop with the same industries that employ their citizens and prop up the local tax base. When they look the other way, as in Trion, it’s bad news for water quality.

On paper, the pretreatment concept is simple. Your local sewage treatment plant is usually designed to treat ordinary household waste, which means getting rid of some pretty basic pollutants—the bacteria that comes from human waste, for example. It’s probably not built to remove more toxic industrial leftovers—dangerous heavy metals like chromium or organic chemicals like benzene. That’s where pretreatment comes in. Industry will set up its own treatment operation intended to remove the really bad stuff before dumping the remainder into sewers running to the public plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed the pretreatment program in the 1970s and ‘80s. Each local sewage treatment plant was to become a mini-EPA, charged with telling companies when they need pretreatment, monitoring performance and taking enforcement action when required.

The program’s defenders say that pretreatment has made a significant dent in water pollution. No doubt it has, but study after study in the last decade has pointed out recurring problems. Some environmental attorneys view pretreatment as a lingering but little-known barrier to full implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act. “It’s not a well-known phenomenon that industries dump into local sewage treatment plants [rather] than into the local river,”
says Rick Parrish of the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A recent report by the Environmental Working Group found that, from 1990 to 1994, industries discharged almost twice the volume of toxins (1.8 billion pounds) into sewers that they dumped directly into lakes and streams. In New Jersey’s Raritan River, the ratio was 50,000 times as much. Treatment plants, unlike industries, don’t have to report their discharges to the federal Toxics Release Inventory, so it’s impossible to know exactly how much of that 1.8 billion ended up in the water. But at the EPA’s standard estimate of a 25 percent pass-through, figure 450 million pounds.

Some of that was certainly legal, but for businesses that don’t comply, the savings can be alluring. Fairmont Foods, a dairy in Union Township, Pennsylvania, was fined $4 million in 1996 for almost 2,000 violations of its permit to discharge to Union Township’s sewage treatment plant between 1989 and 1995. Fairmont didn’t agree to install a pretreatment program until 1994—the same year it was sued by the EPA.

Company towns like Trion are particularly vulnerable, but big cities don’t necessarily fare much better. A 1993 study by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that up to 43 percent of major industries discharging to Baltimore sewers were in “significant noncompliance” with pretreatment standards. Cities and counties generally have the least funding and the least staff, says Ann Powers, an environmental attorney involved in the report. “They’re the level of government least able to do the job and they’re being asked to do it.”

Not to mention the paradox of a service provider asked to get tough with its own customers. At least as early as 1985, an EPA audit of selected plants warned of the obvious dilemma. Most of the plants “expressed a reluctance to take any kind of formal [enforcement] action fearing it would constrain their relations with their users.”

The latest critique came last fall when, under the sponsorship of the EPA’s “Common Sense” initiative, a Massachusetts consulting firm looked at pretreatment programs in three states. While the authors uncovered success stories, they also uncovered more disturbing examples of a familiar pattern. In one unnamed Virginia town, the local treatment plant couldn’t levy significant fines unless the city’s attorney first sued the company. But in what the authors termed an “apparent blatant conflict of interest,” the city attorney sat on the board of the region’s biggest industry.

Does all this mean that pretreatment is an irretrievably flawed concept? Not at all. Consider Muncie, Indiana. This highly industrialized town of 100,000 started its own pretreatment program back in 1972, long before Washington required it. Since then, the volume of pollutants that local businesses channel into the Muncie treatment plant has plummeted. The amount of lead is down 99 percent; total organic chemicals are down by 81 percent.

Perhaps most significantly, manager John Craddock runs the pretreatment program out of an office separate from the city sewage treatment plant. “The superintendent of the treatment plant has plenty to do to run his plant,” he says. “It’s hard to put on that hat saying, ‘Now I’m an environmental policeman.’”