Utilities and the Wild World should be better aligned

Engineers must keep in mind that much of what we do involved regulations and/or legal liability.  Many of these involve environmental regulations.  In 1970, Congress approved the National Environmental Policy Act which required reporting of environmental impacts and set up internal federal mechanisms to respond to them.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their proposed actions into their decision making processes and to provide reasonable alternatives to those actions where they indicate an adverse environmental impact.  Title I of NEPA contains a Declaration of National Environmental Policy which requires the federal government to use “all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony (USEPA, 2009).” This act was the spawned the advent of environmental impact statements that required large projects and those obtaining federal funds to consider the environmental impacts of the project.  The NEPA process consists of three levels of analysis depending on whether or not an undertaking could significantly affect the environment. These three levels include: categorical exclusion determination; preparation of an environmental assessment/finding of no significant impact (EA/FONSI); and preparation of an environmental impact statement (EIS).  The act did not require the project sponsor to do anything, only to report the impacts.  However, reporting was not enough.  A mechanism was needed to respond to the impacts or to mitigate adverse environmental impacts, which led to the Clean Water Act, Public Law 92-500 in 1972.

Cuyahoga River on Fire 1936 in Cleveland, OH – was not the first or last time

The Clean Water Act, Public Law 92-500, was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972.  Section 101(a)(2) declares the intention of the Act to be to achieve water quality sufficient for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife, as well as for recreation in and on the water by July 1, 1983.  The preamble for the Clean Water Act is as follows (source:  Public Law 92-500):

“The objective of this act is to restore and maintain the chemical physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters…..”

Note that cost was not a consideration in the Act.  Congress further stated that it is the nation’s policy that the discharge of pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited.  As a result, this Act affects water and sewer utilities in four ways:  surface discharges to fresh waters, ocean discharges by wastewater plants, the disposal of concentrated process waters from water plants (such as concentrate from membrane facilities), and disposal of residuals (sludge).  Implicit in the Act also is that stormwater and agricultural runoff issues may affect potable water supplies and are potentially subject to regulation.  Legislation was first directed to wastewater because discharging it to a stream made it the source water for downstream communities and the visual conditions of the nation’s waterways was obvious to most people.  Hence, the Clean Water Act focused on trying to get waters clean at the point of pollution which would meet the dual objectives of reducing pollution in drinking water and providing an ecological and public health benefit.  If wastewater could cleaned up before it went into the rivers, this might reduce the amount of treatment that would be needed for drinking water. At the same time, there were a variety of other issues that were addressed such as the attempt to reuse wastewater for beneficial uses like irrigation, to deal with industrial pretreatment so that metals and other contaminants that would disrupt the wastewater treatment process would not be discharged to the sewer system as well as the idea that stormwater might contribute to problems.  There was also an interest in separating sanitary and storm sewers, which was a common occurrence in the north and Midwest at that time. 

The Clean Water Act did not address all problems, especially groundwater pollution found in a quarter of wells during the 1960s, so tap regulations came shortly thereafter in the form of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which was used as guidance for drinking water regulations in the US, Canada and the international community.  The Safe Drinking Water Act built upon earlier public health laws in the United States, which had been in existence since the 1890s. 

The Safe Water Drinking Act (“SDWA”) was enacted by Congress in 1974.  The passage of the SDWA mirrored a change in attitude of Americans towards the public drinking water supply spurred by the detections of organic contaminants in drinking water in many areas of the county.  A USEPA survey in 1969 of 1,000 water systems indicated that nearly a quarter contained substances that were the result of industrial processes, organic solvents and pesticides.  Public concern was raised especially because the contamination was found in ground water, whereas previously contamination had been thought to be limited to surficial water sources.  The SDWA, and its associated amendments, are focused on protecting the public health from various contaminants in potable water supplies.  Whether surface waters, ground waters, or via operation and treatment, the SDWA has basic requirements that must be met.  The law had two sets of standards:  primary and secondary.  The primary drinking water standards were metals and other contaminants that mostly had been taken from the 1962 public health requirements.  Secondary standards were set to encourage people to use water; they are aesthetic standard and focus on the fact that people will tend to drink water that looks cleaner and therefore in the 1970s, the idea was to try to make the water as appetizing as possible.  Removal of biological activity remained an important part of water quality requirements, as it had been since the 1890s. In the SDWA, not only were there fecal coliform requirements, but HPC counts (Heterotrophic Plate Counts) were required to be below 500 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters.

It was soon determined even small concentrations of some substances might eventually lead to effects and the effects are not always predictable.  Since risk-based decision-making was in vogue in the 1980s, Congress proposed risk assessment solution to address the risk and uncertainty associated with low dosages causing long-term effects for suspected as carcinogens.  In environmental impact assessments, risk-cost assumptions may be used.  Figure 2.12 shows an example of such an analysis whereby the acceptable risk is defined, and the associated cost of compliance is calculated.  As risk decreases, the cost rises.  In some political circles, much of the focus is whether the acceptable risk or the cost should be the limiting factor in determining acceptable risk.  Obviously if cost is the limit, the risk would likely be much higher.  Political conflicts over resources are one of four problems encountered with the acceptable risk concept.  The public, of course, wants the risk minimized, whereas industries lobbying Congress were more concerned about initial costs. Limited data and conflicting data create confusion and uncertainty in the risk assessment process.  From a regulation standpoint, conservatism is beneficial; from a conservative political viewpoint, such conservatism in setting a regulation level may create significant costs.  Public distrust of science and the political process, together with a lack of understanding of risk applications, further muddies the issue. 

Most people do not realize that the Clean Water act and the Safe Drinking Water Act were actually reauthorizations and expansion of earlier acts of Congress, some going back 100 years.  But in the era of cutting regulations, these regulations have been trying to protect us for over 50 years.  We need to keep and strengthen them.  Protecting watershed and protecting public water supplies can only benefit utilities.  As a result, we should all become huge proponents of environmental protection!  But somehow we are all-to-often absent from these discussions.


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