Targeting Wastewater Plants

by Pamela Najor
(reprinted from State Environmental Monitor*)

The Georgia state legislature has approved a bill offered by Gov. Zell Miller's (D) that would force the state’s largest wastewater treatment plants to privatize their facilities if they regularly fail to comply with Clean Water Act (CWA) standards

The bill, which at press time was expected to be signed by the governor shortly, has been opposed by environmentalists and industry who claim that privatization has little to do with environmental performance The legislation a unique measure that has not been tested in any other state, several sources say will cover 12 city/county municipal systems in Georgia that treat at least 20 million gallons of wastewater per day and hold National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.

According to the language of the bill, if a publicly owned treatment works (POTW) facility violates any one of three mechanisms that trigger non-compliance, the system will be reviewed by a state government oversight committee, which may then begin accepting bids from private contractors to take over the facility. Privatization will be required if a facility violates its monthly effluent limitation specified in the NPDES permit for any eight months in a 12-month period, violates by a factor of 1.4 or greater for any four months in a 12-month period, or allows three major treatment bypasses to occur during any continuous 12-month period.

According to one source in the governor’s office, the law was designed to "serve as a deterrent" for localities that have numerous CWA violations over a period of time that can jeopardize public health. Atlanta plans to privatize its wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities to fund more than $500 million in capital improvements needed to comply with federal water quality standards. The city has a history of CWA non-compliance with phosphorous discharge limits and combined sewer overflows.

One environmentalist says, however, that the bill is "misguided legislation," adding that privatizing has "nothing to do with compliance." This source adds that the law does not apply to the broad range of wastewater treatment plants and is therefore not sufficiently comprehensive.

One industry source says that the law will not solve the problems of non-compliance. This source says that the governor’s bill is a "stupid law" that assumes that the private industry has a better record of meeting environmental standards, which is false And the bill does not account for operational problems that cause overflows such as excess flooding or equipment failures, according to this source. However, the source in the governor’s office says that initiating a bidding process for private contractors would allow the oversight committee an opportunity to "compare and evaluate" the environmental record of each contractor who bids on the facility under violation.

A private industry source adds that it is general practice for private companies to include a form of guarantee of their performance in the form of a monetary bond in each contract with a municipality. This source says that although this law should be great news to the private industry, many believe that the new legislation is "over-reaching" for the state government to require privatization.

A source in the Georgia Environmental Protection Division source says that privatization is one of several tools the state has looked to as a means to protect the environment, and the department will take a wait-and-see attitude to the "creative approach to achieving compliance" offered by the legislature.

And USEPA believes privatization is a local decision appropriate for some communities to undertake, according to an agency source.

The proposed bill unanimously passed in the Georgia House of Representatives on Feb 9 and overwhelmingly was approved in the Senate on March 13. Once signed, the law would take effect on July 1, and the monitoring of these mechanisms would begin on Jan. 1, 1999.

*reprinted with permission from State Environmental Montior, April 6, 1998
a publication of Inside Washington Publishers (703-416-8500), copyright 1998

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