treatment plants strain to meet state standards
area facilities say required tests costly
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,
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
"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
"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,"
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
"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 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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