Anti-degradation standards from the federal Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), that have been on the books for years, began being enforced last August. Roberts explained the new standards have effectively thrown out the old rules that let towns combine all kinds of industrial sewer effluent so that it could be all treated together.
Cities will now be expected to treat different qualities of effluent separately, instead of treating the entire mixture together. How this is supposed to work is not clear, Roberts said. The EPA has approved no wastewater plant proposals since putting the new regulations into effect. With no model to use, state officials do not know what to say to planners designing plants.
"No engineering firms have gone through the whole step," Roberts said. "They don't know what to charge. Most things have ground to a halt."
The city of Monett is not expected to be impacted by the anti-degradation standards. According to Monett Utilities Superintendent Pete Rauch, Monett has six industries that fully pretreat their wastewater, reducing their high-strength effluent down to the level of typical domestic wastewater. The city's plant then treats the residential and treated industrial effulent together.
Roberts expected the EPA would release comments on some of the regulations in the next few months. The commentary will provide a better idea on what to do to meet the new standards. Until then, state regulators can only speculate on what the federal officials want, based on past EPA practices.
"The EPA's tact has been to find the most perfect standard, knowing most won't meet it," Roberts said. "So they wool them around and squeeze out the best possible use for the environment. That's extremely difficult for cities to engineer."
According to Roberts, cities used to have a bright line process. Regulators set specific water quality standards that had to be met for solids, chemical and air content of what could come out of a wastewater plant after treatment. Engineers designed plants to achieve clearly set goals.
"Now we're down in the wilderness. We get to go wander about in search of the answer," Roberts said.
Since state regulators cannot tell what federal rules require, Roberts said some have been "skating around the issues" to find approaches that may work. For example, cities seeking to improve their wastewater plants for very specific purposes, such as wet weather management or seeking to install back-up systems inside the plant, can get authorization for specific expansion.
Under wet weather conditions, plants are likely to get more water coming in from storm water that seeps into the sanitary sewer system. Steps taken to handle potential overflows may have the effect of creating more capacity at the plant. However, Roberts said federal regulators will not increase the capacity rating of a wastewater facility because of such additions. Capacity ratings will only be increased by meeting the new anti-degradation standards, which no one yet knows how to do.
For the EPA to allow degrading water, Roberts said it must be shown that consumptive use is not economical or possible. One allowable use for wastewater that does not fully meet treatment standards has been the irrigation of a golf course or for a hay field, using a very specific formula. Other irrigation is permitted across a wide area, such as what the George's plant does at Butterfield, as long as test wells are drilled to prove underground water is not being polluted in the process.
Monett irrigates its golf course with treated wastewater effluent that would otherwise be discharged into Clear Creek. "This saves the city millions of gallons of fresh, potable water every year." said Monett Utilities Superitendent Rauch, who credited Past Mayor H.C. Beckwith for the vision and willingness to pay for the irrigation system nearly 20 years ago, and later city leaders for expanding it into the second nine holes.
Roberts expected more cities would go to irrigation practices as a way to deal with growing capacity needs at their wastewater plants. Plant operations must remain a "socially and economically beneficial project," said Roberts, but the point at which this line is crossed, according to the EPA, is part of the "true fluffiness" of the current federal standard.
For a number of years, the EPA has talked about putting standards in place for treatment of phosphorous and nitrogen. Roberts said EPA has proceeded by measuring lake water "cove by cove" to come up with limits for what wastewater plants can discharge, which ultimately ends up in lakes. Chlorophyll is also being added to the formula.
"The numbers are draconian," Roberts said. "No plant that any of you will be able to build will meet that limit."
By setting an unrealistically high standard, Roberts expected the EPA would try to get as much out of the cities as it could, negotiating limits on a case-by-case basis.
"I'd much rather have the bright line system," Roberts said. With the new approach, "You get what you get. And I'm retiring."