Coronavirus Causes Delay in EPA’s Rule for Managing Wastewater

April 29, 2020, 11:29 PM

The EPA has been too busy responding to the deadly coronavirus to work on its long-awaited proposal to manage huge volumes of pathogen-infested sewage and stormwater during heavy rains, the agency’s top wastewater official said Wednesday.

“We think we have a potential path forward,” said Andrew Sawyers, director of the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Wastewater Management, said in a webinar on water priorities for the year.

But “with Covid-19, there are a lot of things under consideration,” he said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“We will provide additional information on timing and potentially when we can move this forward,” Sawyers said about the wastewater rule.

The proposal would clarify when and how treatment plants can skip treating some of their sewage and stormwater when they’re overwhelmed by heavy rains.

That clarity would be crucial to cities that run their own treatment plants that blend huge volumes of water. The EPA had initially banned the practice of diversion, only to see seven states strike down the ban.

Environmental groups have opposed the practice because it allows inadequately treated wastewater to get into the nation’s waterways.

Delayed Timeline

The EPA had planned to issue the wastewater proposal last July, and release a final rule this summer. In its fall regulatory agenda, the agency pushed its deadline to December.

Now, the rule’s release has been postponed until the agency can free up staff to work on the proposal.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which oversees the EPA’s wastewater programs, has criticized any plan that would allow utilities to discharge partially treated sewage into rivers and streams. An aide said DeFazio is still concerned about the issue.

The transportation committee in October approved a water quality protection bill that would bar the EPA from issuing its proposal.

The issue of bypassing treatment for some wastewater is significant amid the threat of the coronavirus, which can be found in wastewater. The EPA said proper disinfection and treatment eliminates the virus.

Utilities have long argued that blending treated and untreated wastewater during floods or storms is necessary to prevent the plant’s biological treatment processes from getting damaged when too much water flows through them.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit struck down the EPA’s ban on the practice of blending in 2013. Since that ruling, the agency has chosen to apply the Iowa League of Cities v. EPA decision only in the seven states where the court had jurisdiction, a move that caused much confusion among cities and counties.

The states within the Eighth Circuit’s jurisdiction are Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com

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