Wastewater Non-Compliance Notice? Now What?

A wastewater pipe and a large oil refinery in the harbor of Antwerp, Belgium with blue sky and warm evening light.

The best-meaning companies catch unwanted attention from state and federal regulators now and again. Even so, receiving a non-compliance violation as a result of your organization’s wastewater treatment practices can cause alarm, particularly if you weren’t expecting it. 

However, one violation doesn’t have to cause financial or reputational damage to your business — as long as you take the necessary steps. Here are five things you need to do upon receiving a non-compliance notice.

1. Decide Whether to Contest the Notice

The very first thing you will need to do after receiving a wastewater non-compliance notice is to decide whether or not to contest it. Every organization has the opportunity to contest federal and state-level allegations of violation.

There are many reasons for organizations to receive a violation. This includes missed reporting deadlines, out-of-range pH levels, and excess chemicals or other debris in wastewater. Organizations will typically take their own readings and measurements and may well believe they have not violated their permits. 

Environmental attorney Joseph Koncelik recommends gathering all appropriate information and responding in writing if you intend to challenge a notice. You must be able to provide hard evidence that disputes the inspector’s findings if you are to be successful. This evidence should be provided as quickly as possible to avoid further penalties or fines.

That said, the inspector’s findings may be accurate. Industrial wastewater treatment is a complex process, and many companies have violated permit regulations on at least one occasion. While there may be a financial penalty to pay, there needn’t be a serious cause for concern as long as you can identify why the violation has occurred and take steps to fix it.  

2. Identify What’s Causing the Issue

If you accept the notice of non-compliance or the notice of violation, it’s important to identify the reason for the non-compliance in the first place. The notice should offer some insight and will typically spell out which effluent limit your organization violated. 

If you have already taken steps to control the issue (e.g. using chemicals to neutralize pH levels or reverse osmosis to remove nitrates), there could be problems with your equipment or processes. Instruments might need recalibrating, or entire procedures could require review. 

If your violation concerns an effluent regulation that you haven’t accounted for, you may need to take more extensive actions. This could mean, for example, performing a treatability study to identify the seriousness of the problem and possible solutions. An in-depth treatability study can highlight all of the ways your wastewater processes might violate local, state and federal regulations. It will also identify suitable solutions to ensure that your effluent remains within regulatory limits going forward.  

The technician checks the quality of the drink water in the laboratory

3. Take Action Immediately

Receipt of a wastewater non-compliance notice automatically starts the clock running for continuous violations and additional penalties. Current Clean Water Act violations cost in excess of $50,000 per day, per violation, meaning costs can skyrocket if the issue is not resolved quickly. 

In many cases, issues can be solved by recalibrating treatment processes. Overdosing chemicals is one common way to push your wastewater’s pH levels out of range, for instance. However, even fixing a problem that seems so straightforward can take significant time.

This is particularly true for facilities that repeatedly incur violations, says Bob Jones, director of the Cartersville Water Department in Georgia. “Now, for somebody who’s got a more chronic problem, what usually is the case is they have either had a process change or some type of new chemical added to the process that they did not anticipate being a problem,” he explains. In some cases, fixing the problem may require purchasing special equipment or overhauling an entire process.

The EPA or local officials may not require proof of correction, particularly if this is your first offense. But requirements differ on a state-by-state basis, so you should always consult your notice to verify whether proof of correction is required. 

4. Assess Your Current Processes to Ensure It Doesn’t Happen Again

After correcting the issue, you may wish to reflect on your current processes for treating wastewater. In many cases, the very same issues can arise again in the future.

If you are a repeat violator, assessment may be a mandatory step. Regulators might require organizations to turn in a written plan that outlines the steps that will be taken to ensure no further violations occur.

Even if it is your first wastewater non-compliance violation, it may still be wise to review your processes. The penalties for repeat offenses levied by most states become increasingly severe. If you can correct suboptimal processes now, before they become painfully expensive, it can be well worth the effort. 

One area where treatment managers may want to pay particular attention is the use of chemicals in the process. Irregular pH levels and high chemical content are common violations, and both can be caused by the chemicals used in the treatment process. While effective, chemical treatments using chlorine or sulfuric acid can be difficult to control. Overdosing is common and can lead to wastewater pH levels that are too low. 

Further, there are costs and other risks when using chemicals to treat wastewater. In short, chemical treatments pose too many problems to be an effective long-term solution to industrial wastewater treatment. 

rio tinto mine

5. Consider Switching to a CO2 Wastewater Treatment System

If a notice of non-compliance is the result of wastewater falling out of a specified pH range or containing excess chemicals, it may be time to consider a water treatment system that uses CO2. The injection of CO2 directly into wastewater creates carbonic acid, a substance that naturally adjusts the pH to normal levels.

Unlike other treatment alternatives, CO2 injection doesn’t risk polluting the water further with additional chemicals. In fact, it removes all of the logistical issues inherent in a chemical-based solution, such as handling and storage, completely. There is also far less risk of breaching permit limits in the future because CO2-based treatment methods cause wastewater pH levels to drop at slow, manageable rates.

That said, caution must still be taken when selecting CO2-based water treatment solutions. Many CO2-based solutions inject carbon dioxide directly into the wastewater, thus allowing gas to escape and negating many of the treatment’s environmental benefits. What’s more, such treatment methods are inefficient. Injecting CO2 directly into the wastewater requires a significant gas supply, which can be costly.

TOMCO2’s patented PSF system, by contrast, has been designed to inject the gas molecule into a carbonic acid solution. This solution is then added to the water stream, allowing pH levels to be controlled safely and effectively for years to come.

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