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The Clean Water Act: compliance challenges communities, businesses: Bob Klieforth from SLR Consulting takes samples at the Anchorage landfill. DEC compliance staff members often observe the sampling process, whether done in house or through contactors outlined in the facility's quality assurance plan.


It is often taken for granted in the Lower 48 that most areas have clean, running water, and that those who use the nation's waters will be held accountable when it comes to protecting the environment. Less than 40 years ago, however, this was not the case. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act as a way to reduce pollution and ensure the nation's waters were safe for human use.

"Before the Clean Water Act, there were a lot of problems--rivers were catching fire because they were filled with oily discharge and many water bodies were polluted," explained Lynn Kent, director, Division of Water, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. "Along with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act is one of the earliest fundamental environmental laws. Prior to the act, there were some rules on rivers and harbors, but these mainly focused on navigation."

While the Clean Water Act has helped to protect water quality in the nation's wetlands, rivers, streams, lakes and oceans, it has also made it difficult for some areas, including a number of Alaska's rural communities, to comply with all of the regulations required. And while businesses who are affected by the act, including the oil and gas industry, timber, seafood, mining, construction and municipal sewage and treatment facilities, know that complying with the CWA is a part of doing business, delays in permitting too often put a strain on project timelines.


While the CWA covers a wide array of different issues, there are two main regulatory programs that affect those living and working in Alaska. The first requires any company or community that discharges wastewater has a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit. This permit regulates the quantity and quality of discharge from facilities and includes monitoring requirements.

"Like 45 other states, Alaska has sought approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to run the NPDES program, and we are about three-quarters of the way through phasing the EPA out and establishing our own APDES (Alaska Pollution Discharge Elimination System) program," explained Kent. "This transition is taking place in phases, based on the 'permittee' sectors. We have now taken over permitting for every sector except oil and gas, munitions discharge and miscellaneous discharges not included in the other sectors."

While the state had originally scheduled this last phase to be completed by Oct. 31, 2011, it is working with the EPA to extend the process for another year. "There was such a large backlog of permits for the oil and gas sector that we wanted to get all of the permits current before we had the sector transferred to us; we're using the help of the EPA until then," said Kent.

The state opted to take on the permitting process for a number of reasons. "Our desire is to issue permits in a timelier manner than the EPA is able to do," said Kent. "For a lot of permittees, time is money. If a permit gets delayed, so does the project.

"Most of the EPA permiters are also located in Seattle, and we feel that it is better to have a permitting staff that understands Alaska conditions," she continued. "Our program will be, and is, as stringent as what the federal government is operating, but we better understand the constraints of the permittees in Alaska. It is also much less expensive to meet with permit writers here than it is to have to fly to Seattle."

To undertake this new role, the Alaska DEC has added positions and budget, though its staff was already familiar with the permitting process. "Even before we began taking over different sectors, we were engaged in the EPA permitting process because the State has to certify that the EPA regulations meet our state regulations," said Kent. "In the end, I believe that our program will be more accountable to the public than the EPA program because we have to ask for our budget from the Alaska Legislature every year. That makes lawmakers pay more attention and puts us in the public eye."

Another part of the Clean Water Act that often affects Alaskans is the dredge and fill (404) permit program managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. "Any project where there is dredging of a water body or fill is placed into a water body, including wetlands, requires a permit from the Corps," said Kent. "In Alaska, almost everything is wet--you can't build in too many places that don't require fill or the use of wetlands."

There has been some concern in Alaska that the EPA has the authority to overturn the Corps' decision to issue a permit based on whether the agency feels the discharge of materials will have an adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds, fishery areas, wildlife or recreation areas. In July 2011, the U.S. House voted on the passage of H.R. 2018, which restricts the EPA's ability to veto the Corps' section 404 permitting decision unless the State concurs with the veto.

"The bill is new but the concept is not new," said Kent. "There has been a lot of frustration in recent years that the EPA comes in at the 11th hour on a project and then causes delays. The bill has not been passed by the full Congress at this point; it is still a long way from becoming law."


While protecting the environment is a priority, so is protecting human health. Unfortunately, the prohibitive cost of building and maintaining full-fledged sewage treatment facilities in rural Alaska can make complying with federal regulations extremely difficult.

"The Clean Water Act affects what kinds of treatment and disposal options are available to communities from Anchorage to Alakanuk," explained Bill Griffith, facility programs manager, Division of Water, ADEC. The agency provides funding and technical assistance to rural communities to develop sustainable sanitation facilities. "Similar to drinking water-treatment regulations, wastewater-treatment regulations over the years have called for more and more sophisticated, complicated, expensive facilities to be constructed."

While most rural communities in Alaska use a primary method of treatment to treat wastewater, CWA regulations are requiring that communities move to a secondary method of treatment. "The deadline to receive a 301(h) waiver from secondary treatment was many years ago, back in the 1970s," said Kent. Anchorage has a formal 301(h) waiver, as do eight or nine other Alaska communities.


"At that time, the EPA recognized that some Alaska communities would have a very difficult time applying for the waiver; they didn't have the technical expertise available," added Kent. "So the EPA gave 76 communities a 301(h) waiver of sorts. This was not a formal waiver, but the EPA recognized at the time that those communities had a long way to go in terms of getting to secondary treatment."

As times have changed, however, so have regulations. This means that many communities are now being required to go to secondary treatment. "Years ago, the only kind of system that was even considered in small, rural communities was a simple, single-cell (pond) lagoon and this met the regulations that were in place," said Griffith. "Over time, it was decided that single-cell lagoons could not meet treatment regulations, and now communities need to build more sophisticated systems that require more money to build and more money to operate."

The Alaska DEC is working with the EPA and individual villages to determine what this means to rural Alaska. "I don't think that anyone really knows what this means for every village in Alaska, but I do believe that--over time--a number of systems now providing primary treatment will need to move to secondary systems," said Griffith.

"Some areas may be able to make modifications to their primary systems instead of building full-blown water-treatment plants; these may include increasing single-cell lagoons to double-or triple-cell lagoons or using septic tanks to capture solids before the waste goes into the lagoons," he added. Other options could include aerating small lagoons by blowing air into them, which enhances the treatment process.

"In Palmer, the city has an aerated lagoon with an insulated cover that greatly enhances biological activity," added Griffith. "Well over 100 communities have uncovered lagoons throughout the state that shut down during the winter because it's so cold, causing bio-activity to stop. Palmer has found a way to continue this bio-activity all year long. Communities need to look at things like this to improve treatments now taking place."

There is, however, no hard-and-fast timeline to see improvements made. "There's simply not enough money to make these changes quickly--the amount of money that we have available to address health and safety issues in treatment systems is already much less than what is needed," said Griffith. "It will take many years; and it's not just to meet regulatory changes. We're dealing with aging infrastructure and undersized systems in many areas and there are still communities that have no running water or sewer. Regulatory needs are only a part of the issue."
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Title Annotation:ENVIRONMENT
Comment:The Clean Water Act: compliance challenges communities, businesses: Bob Klieforth from SLR Consulting takes samples at the Anchorage landfill. DEC compliance staff members often observe the sampling process, whether done in house or through contactors outlined in the facility's quality assurance plan.(ENVIRONMENT)
Author:Orr, Vanessa
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Sep 1, 2011
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