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Great Lakes Article:

Wastewater treatment plants strain to meet state standards
Howell area facilities say required tests costly

By Karen Bouffard / Special to The Detroit News

   HOWELL -- Local communities with wastewater treatment facilities that discharge into the Shiawassee River or its tributaries are struggling to meet what they say are increasingly strict Michigan Department of Environmental Quality standards.
   The Howell, Howell Township and Genoa/Oceola wastewater treatment facilities fall within the Shiawassee River Watershed. In order to continue operating, all three plants need state approval for new National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.
   Local officials say some of the environmental department's requirements lack common sense and impose an unreasonable burden on communities that must fund expensive wastewater testing or plant improvements.
   Department of Environmental Quality officials say they're just enforcing federal guidelines, and Michigan's requirements are no more stringent than they used to be.
   "The people at the DEQ are given a set of rules, and in these rules there's no room for common sense or for any of the gray areas that arise," said Livingston County Drain Commissioner Brian Jonckheere.
   Howell Public Services Director Terry Wilson said the city's wastewater treatment budget has increased from $587,000 in 1996-97 to $773,000 for 2001-02. Much of that increase is due to more stringent DEQ requirements, he said.
   Ten years ago, the wastewater treatment plant did not have to be manned at all times, but now rules call for staffing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Wilson said.
   "Another example is the detection levels," Wilson said. "Where in the past you had to test down to parts per billion, now you have to test down to parts per trillion. They continue to ratchet down. They're asking us to do more testing, and the testing is tougher."
   Howell protested a draft permit received in December that revealed the department's intention to require the city to perform quarterly toxicity testing through 2004 and monthly toxicity testing from then on. The five-day procedure measures the effects of discharged water on minnows and other aquatic life -- and costs $1,400 per test.
   Wilson said the requirement was based on poor reports from tests performed while the plant was under construction for an expansion project.
   "Two tests had a partial failure," Wilson said. "The water didn't damage aquatic life, but there was an indication it could."
   The city successfully argued that the test wasn't representative of the plant's normal performance, and the DEQ has agreed to re-examine the requirement if toxicity tests performed this month and in March show good results. The January test came back okay, Wilson said, and the city hopes to repeat a good performance in March.
   "We definitely don't mind doing the test if we suspect we have a problem, but we resent it if we don't suspect any problem," said Howell Wastewater Treatment Plant Supervisor Steve Hughes.
   "They said we had to do the test quarterly through 2004, and then monthly thereafter," he said. "You'd think you'd want to do it monthly first. Sometimes there's no rhyme or reason to what the DEQ does."
   Oceola Township Supervisor Bill Bamber said a $10.5-million upgrade of the Genoa/Oceola Wastewater Treatment Facility isn't even finished yet -- and the DEQ has already raised the standards it approved before the project started in October.
   The overhaul is being done to comply with a DEQ consent order to clean up sodium and chloride detected in the ground water. The Genoa/Oceola facility will be converted from a ground water discharge system to a surface discharge system. Employees are trying to meet a July 30 deadline for completion.
   "We have been told that when we go up for permit renewal in October there's going to be much stricter requirements than they had when we designed the plant," Bamber said.
   DEQ Environmental Quality Analyst Mike Bitondo said he disagrees that the standards have changed. Communities are looking at the amount of contaminants permissible in the water they discharge, but the state is looking at a bigger picture: How much is ending up in the Shiawassee River?
   "Did they bother to tell you they increased their flow, and that's why the contaminants increased?" Bitondo asked. "There's more and more growth in Livingston County, and that pot has to be divided up. No, the standards have not become higher."
   Bitondo said where the standards are stricter, the state is complying with requirements handed down from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
   "All treatment plants in the state are going to have to do additional testing for metals. That's a federal requirement, and we have no control over that," Bitondo said.
   Bitondo said the burden on communities would be reduced if they'd do a better job of pooling their resources. That's already happened in Howell and Marion Township, where the Howell Wastewater Treatment Facility serves both communities.
   "You get a situation where you got three little plants all within a stones throw of each other and they all have to do this monitoring," Bitondo said. "If you had one plant, you'd just have one plant to monitor."
   Whatever the solution, Jonckheere said something needs to be done to ease the burden on local municipalities.
   "It's difficult, and I really don't know what the solution is," he said. "But I think there could be improvement over the situation we currently have."
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