Billions Could Be Saved Through Waivers for Coastal Wastewater Treatment Plants

CED-81-68: Published: May 22, 1981. Publicly Released: May 22, 1981.

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The Clean Water Act of 1977 allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant waivers to publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities so that thay can discharge primary treated municipal waste into the marine environment when it can be shown that costly secondary treatment is not necessary. Many communities have been discouraged from applying for secondary treatment waivers because of legislative constraints and restrictive EPA administration of the waiver provision. Billions of dollars in federal, state, and local funds could be saved if coastal communities discharging primary municipal wastewaters into the marine environment did not have to build costly and unnecessary secondary treatment facilities.

The Clean Water Act limited some communities from requesting waivers by providing a prohibitive time limit for initiating such requests. It also provided that communities without existing marine outfalls were ineligible for the waivers. EPA restricted the issuance of waivers through complex waiver regulations and extensive information requirements. The costs involved in submitting a completed application for waiver were excessive. In addition, federal funding was not provided for waiver studies. The scientists that GAO consulted believed that the standardized application and review process which EPA uses for all communities, irrespective of size and type of discharge, is not well suited to the waiver provision. A stratified approach was suggested which would take size and type of discharge into consideration. This would focus more attention on dischargers that have the most potential to harm the environment while allowing others to receive the waivers promptly. Immediate action by EPA and Congress would save billions of dollars in unnecessary expenditures.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we determine what steps the Congress has taken, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress should amend the Clean Water Act of 1977 to allow for a continuous secondary treatment waiver process for all coastal communities where the communities have shown that the risk of environmental damage is minimal. In particular, Congress should (1) eliminate the requirement that treatment facilities must have an existing marine outfall to qualify for a waiver; (2) remove the statutory deadline for filing waiver applications and provide for a continuous waiver process; and (3) indicate that the waiver provision is not intended to preclude communities already achieving secondary treatment from obtaining waivers in cases where primary treatment is both cost effective and environmentally sound.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress amended the Clean Water Act to extend the waiver application period fo one year, ending December 29, 1982. As this deadline has passed, and EPA has taken no substantive action on the recommendation, GAO is dropping it.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should, if Congress takes action to allow for a continuous waiver process, revise the waiver application process to obtain a more stratified approach that differentiates between communities based on the population served, the type of waste being discharged, and the ability of the receiving water to assimilate the wastes so that simpler application procedures are used for communities that primarily have domestic wastes and little or no industrial wastes.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress amended the Clean Water Act to extend the waiver application period for one year, ending December 29, 1982. As this deadline has passed, and EPA has taken no substantial action on the recommendation, GAO is dropping it.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should, if Congress takes action to allow for a continuous waiver process, require step 1 facilities planning grant applicants for sewage treatment facilities in coastal areas to consider discharging primary wastes into marine waters as an alternative to secondary treatment.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress amended the Clean Water Act to extend the waiver application period for one year, ending December 29, 1982. As this deadline has passed, and EPA has taken no substantial action to adopt the recommendation, GAO is dropping it.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should, if Congress takes action to allow for a continuous waiver process, experiment with ways of providing technical help to small coastal communities so that they can apply for secondary treatment waivers.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of EPA should revise the EPA definition of best practicable wastewater treatment technology to allow for primary discharges into marine waters for communities that have waivers.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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