Southern Idaho City Struggles With Clean Water Act Requirements

Oct 18, 2012

Forty years ago today, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to reduce pollution in America’s waterways. Even four decades later, hundreds of towns across the Northwest are failing to meet clean water standards for their wastewater treatment plants. For most, that means costly upgrades and higher fees for households and businesses. 

One Idaho town is facing an especially big challenge -- thanks in part to an industrial wastewater plant it took over when a prominent potato company left town.  The J. R. Simplot Company gave the city of Burley it's industrial wastewater plant nearly a decade ago when it closed up shop.

Mary Lou Herbert manages the plant now. She stands on an old wooden walkway that lost it’s paint years ago and points to a wall that splits the large wastewater pond in half. The wall is supposed to keep the microbes that treat the waste on the side with oxygen to keep them alive.

“The water has punched a hole through that wall and I have my microbes now going to the other side of the wall and I have no control to keep them over here,” explains Herbert.

Microbes need oxygen to live and when they creep to the stagnant side of the pond they die. But even on the oxygen enriched side, there is a section where the air pipes are broken. It causes the air to rush to the top of the pond too quickly. It looks like a pot of boiling water, only this is brown industrial waste.

Once treated, water from the plant is fed directly into the Snake River. The discharge regulations are enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plant helped Burley attract hundreds of new jobs after Simplot left town. By 2005 the city had several large companies up and running. The two biggest are in the food industry: Gossners Food and High Desert Milk.

“Those are great employers and brought a lot of recognition to Burley as a place to do business,” says Mark Mitton, the Burley city administrator. For a few years, everything seemed to work great. Despite it’s old age, the plant met EPA standards. But when the EPA issued a new permit in 2009, the plant failed to pass muster.

Mitton, says the discharge limits were greatly reduced and the plant started failing to meet the new requirements. “We told them that would happen, we didn’t have enough processing capabilities in that plant to meet the new permit and they issued it.”

A plant’s permit is good for five years. When it expires the EPA has to renew the permit. Jim Werntz with the EPA explains what changed. “Because their waste source was different than it was when Simplot was there.”

Simplot built the plant to handle potato waste only. Now it has to treat waste from several companies, including a milk producer. Because the use changed, the permit changed. If a plant doesn’t meet the permit - it opens the owner to hefty fines.

Not far from the industrial plant is a brand new $30 million dollar municipal wastewater treatment plant. It went online in 2007 and operates under its own permit. Burley built the new plant to bring the city into compliance. The cost was shared among it’s many users says Mark Mitton. "When I got here, the average household fee was $3.26.”

The plants construction increased the monthly cost to $45 dollars for an average Burley homeowner.

“Was it hard on people on fixed incomes - absolutely," says Mitton. "But the majority of the city residence supported the initiative and so we went forward.”

Burley had two plants, the new municipal plant that easily met the EPA permit requirements. The old industrial plant didn’t.  “So we hooked them together and tried to balance the loads to stay within the permits and sometimes it worked and unfortunately, sometimes it didn’t,” says Mitton.

Now industrial waste is piped a quarter mile to the new municipal plant. But when the industrial users operate at peak capacity, the waste overwhelms both plants. During these times both facilities fail to meet EPA requirements.

Mitton says the city is preparing to renovate the industrial plant. The $6-million dollar price tag will be paid for by the companies that use it. Mitton says the renovations should make the plant work better.

But Mary Lou Herbert who manages both plants and says the upgrades might not fix the bigger problem - capacity.  “In other words, I can’t put three gallons in a one gallon bucket. So if they want to send me three gallons, I’ve gotta increase the size of the bucket.”

Mitton says increasing the size of the industrial plant is something they are looking at. But it will take time.

The wastewater challenge Burley is facing is unusual in that other towns in the Northwest don’t have industrial plants to worry about. But it is like hundreds of other cities across the Northwest who still struggle to meet federal regulations first created by the Clean Water Act 40 years ago.

Copyright 2012 EarthFix