Companies have a legal obligation to make sure they are doing their part to limit as well as prevent pollution through wastewater discharges, even if they have discharge permit.
“The Clean Water Act has significant penalties attached to it,” says Erika K. Powers, a partner in the Chicago law office of Barnes & Thornburg. “Companies that have wastewater permits know that they need to pay attention to water pollution, and that it’s much more expensive to address pollution problems later than to prevent them. No one wants to be in violation of a permit.”
Smart Business spoke with Powers about the requirements of the Clean Water Act and how business can take a more active role in preventing pollution and creating environmental policy.
What does the Clean Water Act seek to do?
The Clean Water Act sets forth the goals that Congress wanted to achieve in the nation’s waters. One of the primary goals is to protect and maintain water quality in order to support a number of uses, including navigation, recreation in and on the water boating or swimming aquatic life ... and also wildlife. Other uses are agriculture supply, industrial water supply and, of course, drinking water.
After discussing the overall goals, the Clean Water Act establishes a framework for states to adopt water quality standards to support their waters’ uses, as well as a permitting program to apply those water quality standards to wastewater discharges.
What are some of the consequences of violating this act?
There are a number of things that could result in violations. For example, if you discharge any type of pollutant to a waterway without a permit, that can be a violation of the Clean Water Act. Even if you have a permit, if you discharge pollutants in excess of your permitted limits, that can be a violation.
Violations can result in a variety of consequences. You could face federal or state enforcement action. The Clean Water Act provides for penalties of $37,500 per day, per violation. And as part of the enforcement action, the discharger responsible may be required to perform or contribute to any clean up necessary to address the adverse effects of the violation.
Knowing violation, such as intentionally dumping a truckload of chemicals down the sewer, also carry criminal sanctions.
How can a company prevent violations?
First, understand the limits that apply to your discharge and the water quality standards that apply to your receiving water. Next, make sure you are aware of any relevant information about your receiving water and whether it’s impaired, or being adversely affected, by pollutants in your discharge.
If you find that there is a problem, measures to reduce pollutants in a company’s discharge generally fall into one of two categories. The first, called BMPs, or Best Management Practices, are measures like recycling, source control and better housekeeping practices.
For example, if you’re discharging mercury, look at the equipment you use in your factory. Do you have mercury switches? If so, you may be able to obtain equipment that does not use mercury switches. Do you have mercury in fluorescent light bulbs? If so, you may be able to recycle more appropriately to make sure that none of that mercury gets into your wastewater.
Source control efforts look at using different raw materials that don’t have as many pollutants in them. BMPs are the first step look at anything you can do to get pollutants out of your wastewater.
If you have done everything you can and there are still too many pollutants in your wastewater, you move to the second step, which is treatment actually taking the pollutants out of the wastewater through mechanical, chemical or biological treatment.
Can businesses have a say in the environmental policies that affect them?
An important thing for business leaders to understand is that the provisions of the Clean Water Act are implemented by EPA and by the states, so what ends up in a company’s permit is largely dependent on policy and regulatory decisions made by those agencies.
EPA and the state environmental agencies generally follow a public process when they develop new regulations interpreting the Clean Water Act and when they develop guidance documents interpreting their regulations. So companies often have opportunities to provide input into those decisions.
Erika K. Powers is a partner in the Chicago office of Barnes & Thornburg LLP. She is a member of the Environmental Department and concentrates her practice in the area of water quality. Reach her at (312) 338-5904 or firstname.lastname@example.org