A proposed state consent decree would give a Warren County wastewater treatment company with a history of violations two years to stop discharging gas-drilling water containing high levels of pollutants into the Allegheny River.
The state Department of Environmental Protection's proposed settlement would require Waste Treatment Corp. to install additional wastewater treatment mechanisms to remove 99 percent of the pollutants by Jan. 1, 2016, but would allow it to continue its 200,000-gallon-a-day discharges into the river until then.
The proposed consent decree also would fine the company $25,000 and require it to conduct biological surveys of the river to ascertain that the treatment changes are successful in restoring the river's water quality and aquatic life.
The Allegheny River is the water supply for more than a half-dozen public drinking water providers serving more than 560,000 people, including 250,000 in Pittsburgh. The city's water intake pipe is in Aspinwall, about 200 river miles below Warren, Pa.
The consent decree was announced by the DEP on Monday, a month after Clean Water Action, a statewide environmental organization, sued Waste Treatment Corp. in federal court, charging that a state study showed the company was illegally discharging 125,000 pounds of salts plus heavy metals and radioactive compounds in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action state director, said CWA's federal lawsuit spurred the DEP to take action and he's glad the DEP is requiring the company to install a "real treatment system." But, he said, allowing the discharges to continue for two more years is unacceptable.
He also was critical of the proposed settlement because it would not require Waste Treatment to clean up the elevated levels of radioactivity found in the river bottom sediment and because he believes the fine is too low.
In 2011, the DEP fined the company $100,000 for violating its permit but, according to CWA, the violations continued.
The company has a water discharge permit dating to 2003, but the permit does not allow the discharge of oil and gas wastewater, although the company informed the DEP that it was doing so. The DEP has extended the original permit twice, for five years each time, with the last extension scheduled to expire this year.
Attempts to contact the company on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Waste Treatment was one of 16 water treatment plants that were asked in April 2011 by then-DEP Secretary Michael Krancer and Gov. Tom Corbett to voluntarily stop disposing of gas-drilling wastewater totaling about 1.5 million gallons a day. The DEP said at the time that all eight of the wastewater treatment facilities on the Allegheny had complied.
"DEP needs to send a strong message that violating our clean water laws comes at a high price in Pennsylvania," Mr. Arnowitt said. Waste Treatment has alternatives that could be implemented right now, such as becoming a no-discharge wastewater recycling facility. We hope the DEP and the Commonwealth Court will carefully consider these issues prior to finalizing the consent decree."
CWA will continue to pursue its federal lawsuit against Waste Treatment, Mr. Arnowitt said, if the proposed consent agreement is approved without changes by Commonwealth Court following the public comment period, which will end Dec. 23.
Amanda Witman, a DEP spokeswoman, said in an email response Wednesday that the department would not comment until the consent decree is finalized by the court.
According to the DEP, a copy of the proposed consent decree can be obtained by contacting the DEP's Northwest Regional Office at 230 Chestnut St., Meadville, PA 16335, or by calling 1-814-332-6942. Written comments can be mailed to the DEP regional clean water program at the same address.
Don Hopey: email@example.com or 412-263-1983.