A permitting backlog for Missouri’s sewage treatment facilities has the state pulling inspectors out of the field to process paperwork.
About 20 percent of the state’s 3,035 wastewater treatment facilities are operating on expired permits. In Boone County, the percentage is about the same: 21 percent, or 26 out of 125, of the county’s wastewater treatment facilities operate on expired permits. And of the seven water quality violations officials issued to facilities in Boone County this year, four violations were written to three facilities running on expired permits, according to an analysis of the Missouri Department of Natural Resoures’ databases.
The permitting process allows the state to review a facility’s compliance record before renewing its permission to operate. Of course, an expired permit does not mean the facility must cease all activity until it receives state renewal.
“You can’t just expect people to cross their legs (until the permit is renewed),” said engineer Tom Ratermann, who manages the Boone County Regional Sewer District.
Operators such as Ratermann are obligated to continue operating treatment facilities within the confines dictated by old permits until the state issues new ones.
The state requires wastewater treatment facilities to regularly test effluent before it is discharged into streams and rivers. The results are regularly submitted to the DNR, which then shares the numbers with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In a perfect world, the test results would be verified by regular inspections at least once during each five-year permit cycle, said Bruce Martin, deputy director of the DNR’s field services division. But in reality, he said, state inspectors usually do not perform on-site inspections unless the test results submitted by the facility exceed guidelines for treated effluent or the state receives a complaint. Most permits are re-written without inspections during the six months before a facility’s permit is scheduled to expire.
In many cases, samples aren’t collected, and the streams aren’t surveyed.
“Much of what we do is reprocess the paper unless we are aware of a problem,” Martin said.
In short, sewage treatment operations for the most part are self-policing.
“It can be a serious legal problem for the facility to submit numbers which are false,” Martin said, but “infrequent” submissions of false results do occur.
Facilities treating human wastewater represent only one-fifth of the inspectors’ duties. The state has more than 14,000 effluent permits to monitor, including all of Missouri’s confined animal feeding and industrial operations.
Still, since January, the inspectors have issued 130 notices of violation to facilities handling human waste.
In Boone County, six such facilities have been cited for violations.