Wastewater Worriesby Hunter Marrow
Argus Observer, March 4, 2018
New DEQ limits, monitoring could cost Ontario millions
ONTARIO -- On Tuesday, the Ontario City Council voted to have City Manager Adam Brown send a returning letter to Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality. The letter will outline major concerns with a draft sent to the city by the department for review and comment of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The permit would allow the city to discharge wastewater into the Snake River, with new limits and pollutant monitoring six months out of the year.
However, city officials site problems with DEQ's draft.
Among top concerns are the exorbitant costs to upgrade existing wastewater treatment facilities, lack of financial support from the state agency to make such changes and little information provided by the agency on how to best comply with the new limits, which the city will need to reach within a 15-year time span should no changes to the permit be made between now and when the permit is issued.
Normally, NPDES permits are authorized for 5-year terms. The City of Ontario applied for renewal of the permit in 2007. DEQ has administratively extended the prior permit conditions every year since 2008, as the state agency worked to update its water quality criteria, based upon feedback it received from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA had ruled the state's criteria were not sufficiently protective for people who consume fish from state waters.
As a result, DEQ came up with new pollutant limits -- including those for arsenic, copper and mercury -- for Oregon cities to abide by.
New outgoing limit a financial burden
In 2016, Ontario public works staff, contracted through CH2M, along with other city staff, were notified by DEQ that Ontario would be the first municipal wastewater treatment facility in the state of Oregon to have a new final effluent (outgoing) limit for arsenic.
Arsenic, along with copper and mercury are bioaccumulative toxins that aggregate in fish tissue, according to an agenda report by city engineer Betsy Roberts to the city council during its meeting on Tuesday.
With new pollutant limits in hand, Ontario city staff immediately began reaching out to DEQ staff to work on resolutions that wouldn't require such financial investment -- beginning estimates put the cost between $25 million and $75 million for eliminating arsenic sources, providing additional wastewater storage, or new wastewater infrastructure, depending on the option -- as well as more time for the city to plan.
Of three variance options Ontario and DEQ officials discussed when meetings began in the fall of 2016, only one based on "affordability criteria" has been considered by the state agency to be applicable.
Lowering arsenic ‘the proverbial bridge to nowhere'
The biggest area of concern for Ontario is lowering its current level of inorganic arsenic that is flowing into the Snake River. It must be reduced from its current 6 micrograms per liter down to 2.1 micrograms per liter, required by the NPDES permit.
According to Brown, the main objective for DEQ for such a stringent standard is in lowering arsenic in the tissue of fish living in the Columbia River Basin, which the Snake River feeds.
"This is the proverbial bridge to nowhere," Brown said during an interview with the Argus.
This is because, according to Brown, no studies were performed to see if municipalities feeding inorganic arsenic into waterways part of the Columbia River Basin were having an impact on the arsenic levels in the tissue of fish in the Snake River, and by extension, the basin.
The Argus was unable to confirm with DEQ whether such studies existed. Of note, DEQ did conduct, however, an outreach and information gathering project in collaboration with the EPA and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on developing a fish consumption rate of 175 grams per day, between 2006 and 2008, deemed a "reasonable and protective rate to use as the basis for Oregon's human health criteria," but no mention was made of a study on how lowering pollutant rates for dischargers would impact pollutant levels in the tissue of those fish in the Columbia River Basin.
Because of this, Ontario is requesting either DEQ or EPA step forward to perform a Use Attainability Analysis. This is essentially a structured scientific assessment of the factors affecting the attainment of uses of a water body, such as swimming, fishing and drinking. It could be used to determine what kind of impact outgoing arsenic into a river is having on levels of arsenic in fish.
In addition, wastewater flow from Ontario is "less than 0.1% of the total river flow in the Snake River and DEQ has no resources allocated for addressing nonpoint source pollution from arsenic," wrote Roberts, city engineer, in an agenda report to the City Council. Nonpoint source pollution refers to a source of pollution that issues from widely distributed or pervasive environmental elements. According to the EPA, nonpoint source pollution generally results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage, or hydrologic modification.
As it stands, inorganic arsenic levels coming into the city's wastewater treatment plant are 3.9 micrograms per liter. By the time the water has entered and exited the aerated lagoon system that is part of the wastewater treatment plant (five lagoons total), that level is 6 micrograms per liter.
"Somewhere along the way we are collecting arsenic," Brown said.
However, "Without additional efforts to reduce other sources of arsenic, the City will be potentially spending millions of dollars without any measurable improvement in arsenic concentrations in the Snake River," Roberts' report to the council concluded.
Through meetings with DEQ staff since October 2016, the city staff has managed to get the language of the NPDES draft permit changed to allow for a 15-year schedule to comply with the limit for arsenic.
However, even with that revised schedule -- DEQ originally asked for five or 10 years -- costs to install new systems, perform additional studies and create minimization plans and outlines, among other preliminary work, would cost the city an estimated $5 million over 10 years.
The final five-year cost would depend on which pathway to arsenic level compliance the city would be forced to follow: elimination of arsenic sources sufficient to obtain the limit without wastewater treatment; additional wastewater storage infrastructure sufficient to eliminate discharge to the Snake River; or constructing new wastewater treatment infrastructure to remove arsenic.
Costs vary wildly, from an estimated $25 million up to $75 million. However, according to Paul Woods, with Ontario city-hired consulting firm Woods Consulting Group, which the city hired to consult on the NPDES permit process, those figures are very rough and are likely to change.
Woods spoke to the City Council during its Tuesday meeting to provide updates on discussions with DEQ about the NPDES permit, during which time he described the approach the state agency was taking with the new limits as "Regulatory discretion is what is missing here."
He was referring to rhetoric made by DEQ in 2011 when the new pollutant standards were being rolled out, in which the agency assured municipalities that they weren't expecting installation of expensive treatment technologies.
In a June 21, 2011 question-and-answer provided by the DEQ, the agency wrote about the cost to "dischargers," like municipalities, "In some cases, a discharger may be required to install treatment technologies or optimize existing technologies to either meet or approach effluent limits necessary to meet water quality standards. Dischargers are not expected to install costly, unproven treatment technologies to meet effluent limits."
It is possible Ontario could get a variance in complying with the standards, through "affordability criteria" set by EPA. That criteria stipulates that sewer rates for residents, in order to pay for the costs to comply with the pollutant standards, can't be higher than 2 percent of the median household income. This is typically financed over the lifespan of the wastewater treatment plant -- usually 30 years -- Brown said. That would put the monthly sewer bill at $43, for Ontario, he said. According to his calculations, that maximum rate wouldn't be enough over 30 years to pay for the costs of lowering arsenic levels. If the City is unable to pay for the project even with that maximum rate, the City would be allowed its variance.
Brown said such a move "would break families and businesses" before the city would finally be eligible for the variance.
‘Clock starts' in May if no changes made
Comments on the draft permit are due to DEQ no later than March 16. The city fulfilled the deadline when the council approved sending Brown's letter to the agency, attached with comments from the City Council. In addition, Brown was tasked with communicating with EPA leaders regarding the city's concerns.
After receiving comments from the city, DEQ will provide public notice of the permit and allow 35 days for public comment. Once the public comment period wraps up, DEQ will take final action on the permit. According to a schedule from DEQ, final permit documents will be posted by mid-May and when the NPDES permit is issued to the City of Ontario.
"That's when the clock starts," Brown said, regarding the 15-year financial plan, if no changes are made to the permit between now and then.
In his letter to DEQ, Brown wrote, "Our request is to have the City's schedule of compliance for arsenic be tied to the pace of progress from nonpoint source reductions."
Woods maintains the city will be hard-pressed to find large sources of inorganic arsenic to remove, as there are no commercial, industrial or residential sources of the pollutant that the city is aware of.
That leaves nonpoint source pollution, either through leakage from piping, or infiltration from soil or, maybe, some private wells, Woods said.
He already is in contact with DEQ about requesting compliance in line with the city's request.
Meanwhile, Ontario is sending out a white page report to all state legislators, as well as Gov. Kate Brown, about "The City of Ontario Example and the Need for Better Regulatory Structure," as the report is so titled.
"Every city on the stream will have to abide by these standards in the future," Brown said. "But will this really affect those inorganic arsenic levels in the [entire] Snake River?"
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs