America's Largest Point Source Violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act Goes Unenforced

By Donald Sutherland

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges the nation's largest point source violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act is in Dade County, Florida where thirteen municipal Class 1 underground injection control (UIC) wells are daily discharging 208 million gallons of waste into underground sources of drinking water(USDW).

"The injection well UIC problem came to light under a Clean Water Act judicial action between Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department and the EPA in 1995," says Don Olson, Chief of Industrial Enforcement in the EPA's Office of Enforcement Compliance and Assurance (OECA). (http://www.co.miami-dade.fl.us/wasd andhttp://www.epa.gov/region04/pubafpgs/pr97279.htm#PR2)

"Those are the largest municipal Class 1 UIC wells in Florida and they represent the largest point source violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act in the nation," says Olson. (http://www2.dep.state.fl.us/water/wf/uic/uic_hm.htm and http://gwpc.site.net/default.htm )

Florida is the only state in the country permitting municipal Class 1 UIC wells, and according to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) over 400 million gallons of treated waste is daily injected underground statewide via 120 deep injection wells. (http://www.ficus.usf.edu/library/fcfguide/chap10/chap10-7.htm )

Under federal environmental regulations governing the permitting of Class 1 UIC wells (40 CFR 144.12) no owner or operator of an injection well shall allow the movement of fluid containing any contaminant into a USDW if the presence of that contaminant may cause a violation of any primary drinking water regulation under 40 CFR 142 or may otherwise adversely affect the health of the public. (http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/42/300h-3.html )

Ammonia (NH3) is used as an indicator by the FDEP and EPA in their monitoring tests to identify Class 1 UIC waste in USDW, and Miami Dade and Sewer Department laboratory analysis of the Biscayne Aquifer (a sole source aquifer) shows ammonia in raw water readings in all five of the county's water treatment plants.

So far, enforcement of the nation's largest violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act has been a jointly negotiated Administrative and Consent Order between the County and the EPA (EPA Docket No.4-UICC-005-95) which acts as a compliance order to accompany FDEP Operation Permits for the 13 injection wells and Miami Dade Water and Sewer Department's wastewater treatment plant; "The Orders include corrective actions required to address violations of Department rules regarding the upward movement of injected fluids into overlying waters of the State and the absence of reasonable assurance of the adequacy of confinement across the site."

The only corrective action the EPA and FDEP have taken thus far is funding studies to monitor the nature of the pollution.

"It isn't clear if it's the wells or the geology which is causing the problem," says Scott Hoskins, spokesman for EPA Region 4.

"The dilemma is even if treatment is upgraded the wells would still be in violation because if a pathway exists then there is a violation, " he says.

Hoskins admits operation permits for municipal Class 1 UIC wells are being issued in other counties despite FDEP reported violations in those regions and acknowledges his office in 1998 received a waiver request from Miami Dade Water and Sewer Department for the EPA's Administrative and Consent Order - which has not been denied.

Environmental industry analysis's claim the EPA and FDEP's non-enforcement of the nation's largest point source violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act gives industries and municipalities faced with expensive waste treatment complying costs a precedent to follow Dade County's less costly method of underground disposal of sewage and industrial waste.

"Anytime the DEP decides not to enforce an operating disposal system permit it opens up other facility operators to challenge the conditions of their permits," says David Wilcox, head of sewage waste management at the Tampa, Florida office of Dames & Moore Group, a global engineering and consulting firm with over 5,800 employees. (http://www.dames.com/dmg_home/default.cfm)

"There are operational condition differences and variances for permits, but if the DEP didn't have a reason for not enforcing a violation it allows other municipalities to claim if you cann't enforce regulations on them then you can't enforce them on anybody," says Wilcox.

Ch2M Hill Ltd, a Fortune 500 engineering and consulting firm headquartered in Colorado, is the premier firm in Florida contracting the instillation and operation of many of Florida's Class 1 UIC wells. (http://www.omiinc.ocm )

"Yes, there has been migration of Class 1 UIC effluent in some regions in violation of SDWA, but you have to look at the facts," says Jeff Lehnen, Group Leader of Water Resources in Ch2M Hill's Gainsville, Florida office.

"We in the engineering business are balancing regulations against available technologies and what costs the voting utility rate payers are willing to spend to safe guard their water resources," says Lehnen.

"The bottom line is nobody has ever been harmed by Class 1 UIC well effluent, and if you don't have injection wells in Florida you'll have greater ocean outfalls which nobody wants," he says.

A spokesman for the American Water Works Association (AWWA) says enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Florida and the rest of the country is done mostly on a voluntary basis driven by public relations and litigious concerns but Dade County's Class 1 UIC well violations raises serious legal and ethical questions for the EPA. (http://www.awwa.org )

"Under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act utilities don't have to report waste water violations," says Jack Sullivan, Deputy Executive Director of AWWA, a nonprofit organization representing 56,000 members and over 4,000 utilities serving 85% of the populations of the US and Canada.

"The EPA is duty bound under law to enforce the SDWA, but since the EPA initiated permitting of Florida's Class 1 UIC program it raises the question did they violate their own laws," says Sullivan.

"Overall, the EPA's underground injection control program needs a lot of looking into because there is some really toxic stuff going down these wells!"

* * * * *

As a follow up to my reporting on Florida's Class 1 underground injection control (UIC) wells and their contamination of underground sources of drinking water (USDW), here's California's list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. http://www.oehha.org/archive/list.html

The Environmental Defense Fund has a Scorecard Website to research the chemical pollution in any region of the US. http://www.scorecard.org and the Environmental Working Group has a website reviewing drinking water contamination ( http://wyl.ewg.org and http://www.ewg.org/pub/home/reports/In_The_Drink/florida.html )

The question is who is monitoring chemicals discharged into municipal and industrial Class 1 and Class V underground injection control (UIC) wells which migrate into underground sources of drinking water (USDW) in Florida? http://www.enviro-net.com/cgi/news/story.pl?news_story=fl19990106

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Florida Department of Health, and US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) aren't monitoring chemical discharge into Class 1 (no.120) and Class V (no.8,000) UIC wells. http://www.ficus.usf.edu/library/fcfguide/chap10/chap10-7.htm

Drinking ground water is an exposure pathway being reviewed in the children cancer clusters in Toms River N.J. (http://www.thnt.com/doc2/cancer ) and Port St.Lucie (http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/daily/detail/0,1136,500000000005012,00.htm )

Does your town have Class 1 and Class V UIC wells?

(c)Donald Sutherland 1999