Sewer Saga

An aging Pima County plant raises questions

Stretching along the concrete sprawl on Tucson's northwest side, the Ina Road sewer plant has grappled with our offal for decades. A symbol of progress when it was built with federal funds in the 1970s, today, the plant is perhaps more emblematic of an aging national wastewater system, where problems can spark friction among those charged with making it work.

That was revealed last month, when the Phoenix-based Environment Arizona Research and Policy Center released a report documenting gaping holes in enforcement of the 1972 Clean Water Act. In "Troubled Waters," the center highlighted toxic discharges from the nation's factories, sewer plants and other facilities. (See "Water Ways," Currents, Nov. 8.)

Among them was the Ina Road Water Pollution Control Facility. According to stats from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 2005 (the latest year available), the plant exceeded permitted levels for chlorine residue numerous times. And those exceedances were consistently 300 percent or more above permitted levels. On two occasions, the facility was reported topping its maximum allowance by 1,300 percent, a number that plant operators dispute. In addition, there was at least one incident of excessive fecal coliform emissions.

Under its permit, the plant is supposed be near zero in emitting residues of chlorine, which is used as a disinfectant. Given that low standard, county officials argue that even a 1,300 percent exceedance actually means an infinitesimal amount of the chemical is released into the adjacent Santa Cruz River.

But that's enough to hike Ken Greenberg's eyebrows. He's manager of Clean Water Act Compliance for EPA's Region 9, which includes Arizona. "The type of violation--in the magnitude and frequency shown there--is the type that would have gotten our attention," Greenberg says. "We would have called the (Arizona Department of Environmental Quality) and asked them, 'Are you guys going to enforce, or should we?'"

Under the Clean Water Act, facilities such as the Ina Road operation are regulated through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES. Like many other states, Arizona is granted authority by the EPA to conduct NPDES enforcement. This authority is carried out by the ADEQ.

And that bundle of acronyms boils down to the fact that state officials have played tough with the Ina Road plant. In fact, the ADEQ wrangled a $1.3 million settlement with the Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department in 2005, after the facility released some 30 million tons of raw sewage into the Santa Cruz--along with some 200 other "unlawful discharges."

Out of that settlement total, Pima County had to pay a $500,000 civil penalty and agree to spend $800,000 to buy land surrounding its sewer plants for flood control and wildlife habitat.

According to ADEQ spokesman Tom Marcinko, the plant's chlorine exceedances contributed to the penalty, which he calls the largest water-quality fine in Arizona history. "We certainly considered that an enforcement action," he says, "and it did include those other exceedances."

Since then, the Ina Road plant has been placed on a short leash by state officials. Like all facilities regulated under the Clean Water Act, Ina Road managers must file quarterly reports with the ADEQ.

But in the aftermath of their problems, plant managers were required to provide reports every 30 days. In addition, Ina is now part of a compliance-assistance program, "which throws a spotlight on facilities that might be having problems," Marcinko says. "It means there's much more communication between the agency and the facility. There's a lot of fine tuning."

However, Pima County officials still dispute some of the chlorine exceedances, and cite the difficulty of managing a 30-year-old plant in the face of ever-tightening standards. Jackson Jenkins is deputy director of Pima County's wastewater department. He blames the lack of measurement devices able to pinpoint such minute chlorine levels, likening it to a car speedometer that only tells the driver he's cruising somewhere between 60 and 70 mph.

That's not much help in a 65 mph zone, Jenkins says. "We're held to a very tight standard. But we've always been a little concerned, because standards can go as tight as appropriate to protect human health and the public, but it's sure nice if the technology keeps up--if you have instruments that can actually help you maintain those levels."

Plant operators chlorinate to kill bacteria, and then use sodium bisulfite to remove the chlorine before wastewater is dumped in the Santa Cruz River. But that can get tricky when the plant discharges 25 million gallons of wastewater each day.

Given those numbers, Jenkins says his facility has actually performed well, particularly when the permitted chlorine levels are near zero. "The amount that we exceeded was barely over the limit, and there were no trends before or after" of continuing exceedances.

But Greenberg of the EPA contends that permits are set for a reason. "I can see (Jenkins') argument," Greenberg says. "On the other hand, any amount over the limit is a violation."

Still, he says, the EPA does consider the context--the percentage of exceedance and number of incidents--when evaluating a plant. "We do look at larger picture," he says.

Pima County officials say they're also taking the long view. Under a mandate from ADEQ, the Ina Road plant will undergo upgrades expected to cost several hundred million dollars, slated for completion in 2014. Among those improvements will be an approximately $200 million project to implement a biological treatment process called "Bardenpho." The process, widely used in Europe, promises to lower nitrogen and ammonia levels in the Ina Road sewage.

The changes are part of the Regional Optimization Master Plan, or ROMP, itself a blueprint for improvements in the system over the next 20 years. In 2006 dollars, the cost is estimated at $536 million. With interest and inflation, that price tag could eventually top $1 billion.

And unlike earlier times when the federal government was generous with financial assistance, these days, local taxpayers will foot that bill through government bonds.

"They built a lot of infrastructures in the United States in the '70s," says Jeff Nichols, controller for the Pima County wastewater department. "Now, a lot of that infrastructure has aged, and it's time for it to be replaced."

When the county started the ROMP, they canvassed commercial designers and builders for ideas, he says. "Some of those private firms even offered to finance the projects."

Nichols says those efforts received applause from federal officials--but also a caveat. "The feedback we got from the EPA, which is where the federal funding would come from, was, 'Gosh, we really like your idea to look for alternative financing sources--as long as you're not looking at the federal government.'"