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EPA Announces Comprehensive Set of Actions to Protect and Improve Caribbean Waters
Release Date: 08/10/2000
|(#00153) San Juan, Puerto Rico – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced a series of actions intended to maintain and strengthen the protection of water quality in Caribbean waters. Today’s announcement is twofold. First, looking to the future, EPA Regional Administrator, Jeanne M. Fox, and Puerto Rico Governor, Pedro Rosselló, today signed an agreement to continue to implement necessary capital improvements in Puerto Rico’s wastewater management infrastructure. The agreement also establishes a framework for Puerto Rico to move voluntarily to secondary treatment at any of the wastewater treatment plants that receive a waiver from secondary treatment requirements, with the explicit purpose of further reducing the discharge of pollutants into Puerto Rico’s ocean waters. The agreement recognizes, among other considerations, that the United States recently signed a new protocol regarding the protection of the wider Caribbean from land-based sources of pollution.
Second, EPA announced three proposed decisions on specific requests for waivers from secondary treatment for sewage treatment plants in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. After confirming that the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewage Authority (PRASA) Aguadilla treatment plant meets stringent requirements that protect public health and the environment, EPA proposed to grant a waiver from secondary wastewater treatment to the plant. The EPA proposal would require the Aguadilla plant to continue providing advanced primary treatment. EPA also proposed to deny requests for waivers from secondary treatment for the Virgin Islands Department of Public Works (VIDPW) St. Thomas and St. Croix wastewater treatment plants, based on their failure to meet those same requirements.
PRASA has achieved compliance at Aguadilla and is working to improve the infrastructure, operation and maintenance throughout the entire system. Puerto Rico’s drinking water and wastewater treatment systems are still in need of major improvements to ensure sufficient and safe drinking water and improved wastewater treatment. PRASA and the Puerto Rico Infrastructure Finance Authority (AFI) recently released a capital improvement plan that commits $2.6 billion on more than 600 projects, many of which are required to meet Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. These projects include hooking up homes to sewers, upgrading to secondary treatment those plants at which secondary treatment waivers were denied or withdrawn and installing drinking water filtration plants. Today’s agreement underscores the Puerto Rico Government’s commitment to implementing and EPA’s support of that plan.
The agreement also sets a goal for Puerto Rico to achieve secondary treatment within the next twenty years at all plants that receive a secondary treatment waiver, as Federal and Commonwealth dollars become available. Primary treatment uses a physical process to separate and settle out solid materials from sewage; advanced primary treatment enhances the settling out process. While primary or advanced primary treatment can provide, and in the case of Aguadilla is providing, the required level of environmental protection, secondary treatment, which utilizes bacteria and aeration to further break down the sewage, would further reduce pollutants entering Puerto Rico’s ocean waters.
"We are proposing to allow the waiver from secondary treatment at the Aguadilla plant only because we are convinced that the current level of treatment at the plant is protecting the environment and public health," said Jeanne M. Fox, EPA Regional Administrator.
"In contrast, we are proposing to deny waivers for the two plants in the Virgin Islands, because they have not been shown to be operating reliably and without effect on the environment." With respect to the agreement with the Government of Puerto Rico, Ms. Fox stated, "we would like to do even better in the future; that is why we have memorialized the commitment of the Puerto Rico Government and EPA to implement the plan for capital improvements in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, and to move to secondary treatment."
Under the Clean Water Act, publicly owned sewage treatment facilities that discharge into deep ocean waters had the opportunity to apply for a waiver from secondary treatment. EPA will only grant a waiver to a facility that provides less than full secondary treatment if it demonstrates that it meets a set of stringent environmental and human health protection requirements. According to these provisions, the facility must meet nine specific requirements, including: not causing a violation of water quality standards; protecting and maintaining healthy, viable marine communities in the vicinity of the discharge; providing at least primary treatment; controlling pollutants from any industries that may discharge into the plant; and providing a monitoring program to continuously assess impacts of the discharge. PRASA applied for waivers at 13 plants. More than half of those waivers, seven in all, were denied or withdrawn. Waiver requests were denied by EPA for PRASA’s Barceloneta and Mayaguez plants, and PRASA withdrew applications for the Dorado, Fajardo, Guayama, Guayanilla and Humacao plants. EPA today proposed to grant the waiver for Aguadilla, and will announce proposed decisions on the remaining five by the end of the year. In addition, EPA today announced its intent to deny waivers for two plants in the U.S. Virgin Islands because the Virgin Islands government could not bring the plants into reliable compliance with the requirements needed to protect public health and the environment.
EPA is proposing to deny the St. Thomas waiver because it has not been able to comply with primary treatment requirements. The St. Croix plant also has a history of non-compliance and, in addition, would not meet other requirements needed for a secondary treatment waiver, including having a monitoring program to assess the impacts of its discharge, and being able to demonstrate the presence of a healthy marine environment in the immediate vicinity of the discharge. Under an existing Consent Decree with the U.S. Government, the Virgin Islands was required to come into full compliance with all primary treatment requirements. EPA is actively seeking compliance with this agreement. If EPA’s denial of these waivers is finalized, VIDPW will be required, under the same Consent Decree, to upgrade both plants to secondary treatment within three years. EPA remains committed to working with the Virgin Islands government to help it comply with this schedule.
In the case of Aguadilla, the plant is in compliance with all applicable Clean Water Act requirements. In particular, recent comprehensive monitoring shows that a healthy population of fish, shellfish and wildlife exists in the immediate vicinity of Aguadilla’s discharge. The discharge has also been found not to affect the limited coral reef formations in the area. Similar recent monitoring data are being or will be reviewed for five other plants for which waivers are being considered. As with Aguadilla, those plants will provide advanced primary treatment.
Ms. Fox further commented on PRASA’s prospects for the five other waivers saying, "While we are not ready to make proposed decisions and we are still continuing to look carefully at monitoring data and PRASA’s compliance at these plants, we feel that the prospects are good for waivers at all five plants. Of course, this assumes that our reviews will not turn up any indication that these plants will cause water quality problems, would harm coral reefs or other vital resources, or have slipped out of compliance."
By signing the Memorandum of Agreement to work towards achieving secondary treatment, EPA and Puerto Rico are showing leadership in implementing the Caribbean Protocol on Land-Based Sources of Marine Pollution, which was adopted on October 6, 1999, and set ambitious goals to govern domestic sewage discharges into the waters of the wider Caribbean. In addition, the agreement shows a commitment to the President’s Executive Order on Marine Protected Areas, issued May 26, 2000, to better protect beaches, coasts and the marine environment from pollution.
"Right now," Ms. Fox said, "the Puerto Rico Government must continue to focus its efforts on meeting Federal standards that protect drinking water and local water bodies -- particularly by addressing those problems that pose the greatest threats to the environment and public health. But still, we all agree that secondary treatment at all of Puerto Rico’s wastewater treatment plants is a goal toward which we should work and, with today’s agreement, the people of Puerto Rico have the commitment of EPA and their government to do so."
EPA is taking public comment on its decision to grant the Aguadilla waiver and the companion permit for the facility and will hold a public hearing on September 21 in Aguada.. EPA is also taking public comment on its proposed decision to deny the St. Thomas and St. Croix waivers.
Comments, postmarked by October 5, 2000, should be sent to Carl Soderberg, Director of the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, U.S. EPA, 1492 Ponce De Leon Avenue, Suite 417, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00907-4127.