I read with interest the Tribune’s front-page article “Commissioner blasts EPC rules” (Aug. 1) about Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham’s complaints regarding the Environmental Protection Commission’s enforcement actions against some facilities in the county, and your Aug. 3 editorial “Don’t make EPC a target” accusing Higginbotham of trying to “undermine” the agency.
I want to offer a different perspective in defense of Higginbotham. Instead of broad-brushing his complaints as unwanted criticism of the Hillsborough County EPC, I regard his concerns about regulatory overreach and arbitrariness as reasonable and worthy of investigation.
Higginbotham has highlighted the case of Speedling, Inc., which has been charged with “a number of offenses,” including failure to test wastewater, as well as “unauthorized” discharges into surface water. I am familiar with similar “offenses” by other wastewater facilities in Hillsborough County which have had “unauthorized’ discharges and have been under enforcement by the EPC.
Please note that Florida Department of Environmental Regulation rules (adopted by the EPC) allow direct and deliberate discharges into surface waters under certain contingencies, as defined in the rules, provided the facility notifies the regulatory agency promptly with a plan to prevent such events in the future. Such unforeseen or unavoidable events do not constitute an offense. Unfortunately, these rules do not address situations when the wastewater disposal systems of these facilities overflow due to a deluge of rainfall, especially during the summer, when almost-daily downpours are not uncommon in Hillsborough County.
Therefore, the problem underlying enforcement action against “unauthorized discharges” is the lack of clear understanding by the facilities as to what constitutes an unauthorized discharge, which occurs on an occasional or temporary basis due, solely, to heavy local rainfall.
Above-average rainfall during the past two months has caused many wastewater holding ponds in Hillsborough to overflow (discharge) into surface waters. Discharges during dry-weather conditions are usually prevented due to the efficient operation of these ponds ( i.e., percolation and evaporation, as well as storage of excess wastewater). However, the cumulative effects of prolonged wet weather, combined with a high groundwater table, overtax the disposal and storage capacities of these ponds and cause them to overflow.
Since such overflows occur during or after heavy or prolonged rainfall when the flows in the receiving waters (ephemeral ditches and streams) are high, the water-quality impacts or environmental significance of such short-term discharges are neither understood nor investigated. In fact, all water quality and waste-load allocation studies by state and local agencies are based on the public-health and environmental impacts of wastewater discharges during dry-weather conditions, when such impacts will be at their worst.
However, the environmental impacts of these infrequent wet-weather discharges are often ignored and, therefore, do not play a role in the decision by the regulatory agencies when they enforce their ill-defined “unauthorized discharge” requirement on facilities that practice environment-friendly land-application of treated wastewater.
Keep in mind that the quality of treated (“reclaimed”) water that is accidentally discharged due to extreme weather conditions usually meets all appropriate waste treatment and disinfection standards of the FDEP
A lack of understanding on what constitutes an “unauthorized’ discharge from a legally permitted facility during wet weather is still a vexing issue faced by many local agencies such as the EPC. In the absence of a clear rule, or a reasonable interpretation (guidance) of the current rules on this issue by the FDEP, confusion and controversy will continue to cloud the enforcement decisions of agencies like the Hillsborough EPC and cast a shadow on its reputation as guardians of our environment.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of understanding of what constitutes an “unauthorized discharge,” even such older facilities do not escape enforcement action by regulators who force them to haul off their treated and disinfected wastewater to another facility for alternative treatment and/or disposal. Such a costly alternative is neither warranted nor justified from an environmental perspective and isn’t, by any means, supported by current FDEP rules. It only reflects a regulatory fiat that ignores consideration of economic costs to the affected facilities in relation to any perceived benefit to the environment.
It is time for the state (FDEP) to intervene and set matters straight either by adopting revisions to the current rule or providing a policy guidance on this issue so the regulated facilities get relief from the unbridled and unreasonable exercise of regulatory authority by some of its local programs.
Jay Thabaraj graduated with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from Oklahoma State University in 1969 and was employed as an environmental engineer at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for almost 35 years. He lives in Temple Terrace.