The ‘Solution’ to Pollution Is Still ‘Dilution’

Earth Island News

Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters (C-SAW)

Nearly 30 years after passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA), toxic industrial and municipal wastes are still being dumped into our rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters. Congress intended the CWA and federal pollution regulations to end the idea that “dilution is the solution to pollution.” But pressure from the nation’s biggest polluters prompted the creation of a loophole called “mixing zones” – special dilution areas approved for nearly every discharge where state water quality standards (WQS) don’t apply.

The Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters (C-SAW) is the only project devoted solely to closing the mixing-zone loophole in the Clean Water Act. C-SAW is working with local and national organizations to reduce or eliminate specific mixing zones, to tighten state and federal mixing-zone regulations and to challenge the rules supporting mixing-zone use in federal court.

Late last year, the EPA finalized rules for the Great Lakes that prohibited the assignment of new mixing zones for toxic “bioaccumulative chemicals of concern” (BCC). The EPA also promised to eliminate existing BCC mixing zones within 10 years. C-SAW’s efforts to push the EPA to extend the Great Lakes standard to all US waters before the November 2000 election fell short but the idea is spreading. Across the country, clean-water activists are mounting challenges to the use of mixing zones. Meanwhile, Maryland’s Governor Parris N. Glendening is considering a BCC mixing-zone ban and a legislative effort to end all BCC mixing-zones is underway in Washington State.

Water Warriors in Washington

The Washington State Toxics Coalition and Citizens for a Healthy Bay are fighting the allocation of a mixing zone for the Cascade Pole and Lumber Company that would allow the release of high levels of wood preservatives (chromated copper arsenate, creosote and pentachlorophenol) into the Puyallyup River.

The Washington Department of Ecology knows the facility will immediately exceed its permit limits even with mixing allowances because a diffuser (a multi-port discharge pipe) has yet to be constructed. Rather than restrict discharges until the treatment system is fully operational, the state has proposed allowing the discharges to proceed as if the diffuser were already in place and has assumed that there was no pre-existing contamination – despite the fact the plant has been releasing persistent pollutants at the same locations for years.

Increasingly, as in the Puyallyup case, state agencies are covering for polluters that can’t meet WQS by authorizing “interim” permit limits and “compliance schedules” that may last throughout the entire five-year permit cycle. Such permits exist in defiance of federal regulations that require setting permit limits to achieve WQS.

Pollutants in Puerto Rico

C-SAW staff recently traveled to Puerto Rico to meet with members of Centro de Acción Ambiental (Environmental Action Center) and help fight a mixing zone for a municipal sewage treatment plant in the coastal town of Barceloneta that launders nearly 4 million pounds of toxic organic solvents and other pharmaceutical manufacturing wastes every year.

Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB) officials are unable to answer fundamental questions about the pollutants in the wastestream or the ultimate fate of the discharges into the surrounding air and water. Residents believe the town’s caustic air pollution, dying mangrove forest and declining fish populations are a direct result of discharges from the plant.

A 10-year-old industry-drafted mixing-zone study assumes the existence of an offshore discharge pipe, but the EQB admits the ship installing the pipe crashed on a reef and may never have completed the pipe’s construction. Dye-dispersion tests were performed to determine the area of mixing and to quantify the dilution achieved at increasing distances from the pipe. When no dye was observed, EQB concluded that excellent mixing was being achieved – failing to consider that the discharge point might have been in a totally different location! Follow-up inquiries on the contents of the discharge pipe have been directed to the EPA in Puerto Rico and New York. As of press time, these requests remained unanswered.

A Battle Won in Baltimore

A major victory was won in February 2001, when the Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) abandoned a plan to issue a multiple mixing-zone permit to cover a Bethlehem Steel plant’s discharges of heavy metals into Baltimore Harbor. Studies had already demonstrated significant metal and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) contamination in nearby sediments and high levels of zinc, chromium, PCBs, nickel, copper and cyanide in local waters. Nevertheless, MDE was prepared to authorize mixing zones to “legalize” continued elevated releases of pollutants at several outfalls rather than require changes in the steel plant’s operations to reduce pollutant loading.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Cleanup Coalition and the University of Maryland Law Clinic challenged the permit. During the public comment process, citizens challenged (among other facts) the state’s estimates of receiving water volume and tidal velocity – two significant factors affecting the degree of potential dilution. Strong opposition from the public, the EPA, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service forced MDE to redraft the permit without the mixing zones, ending Bethlehem Steel’s century-old legacy of poisoning Chesapeake Bay.

C-SAW has recently begun a nationwide survey of the extent of mixing-zone use. This survey, to be completed by the end of 2001, will record the locations, types and concentrations of pollutants being dumped into mixing zones in public waters and compare mixing-zone rules state-by-state, as well as provide a list of recommended actions for folks fighting mixing zones in local waters.

Gershon Cohen Ph.D. is the project director of the Campaign to Safeguard America’s Waters, an Earth Island project [C-SAW, Box 956, Haines, Alaska 99827, (907) 321-4121, fax: 766-2360,]. C-SAW memberships: $25.

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