Thursday, January 29, 2015

Only Rain Should Go Down the Storm Drains

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the discharges into the “waters of the United States,” the rivers, streams, estuary and bays, but in the real, everyday world they don’t really work on the local level. In the case of Virginia (and most other states) they actually do this by delegating to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality the authority to implement the federal Clean Water Act under the Virginia State Water Control Law. While it is the EPA and DEQ who make regulations and inspect for compliance with those regulations, it is the local government, our towns and counties that implements the programs to stop or reduce pollution and encourage compliance with regulations. Prince William County staff translates permits limits and state regulations into action.

The Prince William County department of Public Works implements a series of programs aimed to reduce the release of pollutants into the local stormwater sewer systems to protect our local waterways from pollution to the greatest extent possible. The Prince William County storm water sewer system consists of man-made components (pipes, ditches, and ponds) and natural components (streams, wetlands, and floodplains) that control the flow of storm water to prevent flooding and minimize pollutants entering our waterways. Prince William like much of Virginia, is also engaged in implementing programs to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution from the County to not only protect, but to improve the water quality of nearby streams, rivers, wetlands, the Occoquan Bay and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay and its tidal waters have been impaired by the release of excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. These pollutants are released from waste water treatment plants, agricultural operations, urban and suburban runoff, wastewater facilities, septic systems, air pollution and other sources that enter the tributaries and are carried to the Chesapeake Bay. The EPA has mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the local waters. The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limit which is a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 % reduction in sediment from the 2011 levels.

The Prince William County Department of Public Works addresses reducing releases from the stormwater sewer system by a series of programs all paid for by the stormwater fee on your property taxes. I spoke with Robert Jocz who is an Environmental Engineer with the County Department of Public Works, Department of Environmental Services in the Watershed Management Branch. Bobby is in charge of the Dry Weather Monitoring Program for the Prince William County stormwater system. He joined the County Staff in 2013 after receiving a master’s degree in Biological Engineering Systems from Virginia Tech. What Bobby and his inspector do is look for illegal discharges (which the U.S. EPA and the County insist on call illicit discharges) into the stormwater sewer system. We talked about the challenges and the new and improved County program and changes that have been made in response to the new stormwater regulation and tighter permit requirements.

Recently, Prince William County set up a demonstration of our stormwater compliance programs for the EPA to use for training state and regional enforcement inspectors. Bobby set up a demonstration of the Dry Weather Monitoring Program at the landfill. There was also a demonstration by Fleet Management Services of their facilities management programs and Fairfax County set up a demonstration of stormwater programs and VDOT. (See EPA Blog for more details.)

​While stormwater itself can be a problem, according to EPA it is a leading cause of pollution in our rivers and streams. When rain falls the stormwater picks up pollution as it flows across roads, parking lots, and open land, picking up oil and grease, litter, dirt and whatever else is on the ground and carrying the water through stormwater sewer systems which have traditionally been only conveyances. They do not treat the water. So any pollution that enters the system get carried right into our rivers, streams, wetlands and bays and this includes any pollution that was intentionally discharged into the stormwater sewer system. All stormwater programs are intended to reduce the flow of pollutants into the stormwater sewer system. Illicit discharges are intentional discharges into the stormwater sewer system; pouring anything down a storm drain is illegal.

Initially, the EPA regulated only the largest industries and city stormwater sewer systems. As the years have passed, EPA has extended regulation down to smaller and smaller entities. In the last few years as regulations have expanded to include stormwater sewer systems outside the urbanized areas, EPA has worked with many municipalities and counties in the region to improve their compliance with stormwater sewer system regulations and permits. Programs have been tightened and expanded to meet the mandated reductions in stormwater volume and pollutants.

As a result, Prince William County and many other local governments have improved their stormwater management programs to further reduce the contamination of stormwater runoff and prohibit illicit discharges into the system by small businesses and individuals. When small businesses wash their company cars and allow the wash water which contains dirt, grease, gasoline to flow into the storm drain in the parking lot, they are essentially pouring that dirty water directly into the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Likewise, small painting contractors washing their brushes or incorrectly disposing of paint containing water down the storm drain, carpet cleaning companies’ disposal of waste water and cleaning solution into the stormwater sewer system, and others who routinely pour small amounts of waste water into the stormwater system are polluting. All these small pollutants add up. The stormwater system only carries water to our waterways, it does not treat it.

Bobby runs the Dry Weather Monitoring Program. A "dry weather condition" is the period at least 48-hours after the most recent rainfall. If it is not raining, there should be limited flow if any in the stormwater sewer system. Dry weather sampling and monitoring is an effort to isolate potential illegal discharges. Occasionally, people knowingly or unknowingly discharge hazardous waste or other non-storm related waste into the stormwater sewer system. When illicit releases are discovered the first step is education. Bobby and his inspector inform the business or individual that what they are doing is illegal, and though the usual reaction is “it’s only a small amount,” small amounts of pollution quickly add up.
from PW County

If the illicit discharge was by and individual, the first step Bobby and his inspector take is to educate and then get them to agree to comply with the regulations. With small businesses or repeat offenders a “Notice of Violation” is issued that gives them 30 days to come into compliance with regulations of face fines up to $1,000 per day. So far there has been no need to issue fines. Bobby and his inspector revisit the sites to verify continued compliance, but in truth they can only spot check. So far, the largest number of violations have been from washing cars.

To clean up the Chesapeake Bay and meet the requirement of the EPA mandated TMDL we all need to change our behavior to reduce small source of pollution to the stormwater sewer system and our waterways. Individuals are still allowed to wash their automobiles in their driveways, but businesses are not. The car wash that was used as a fundraiser for schools has been banned in many communities and is a source of illicit discharge. You can help clean up our rivers, streams, wetlands and the Occoquan and Chesapeake Bays by not dumping any waste, liquid or trash into the stormwater sewer system or onto the ground that drains to the stormwater sewer system. You can also help Bobby and his inspector protect our waterways by reporting any illicit discharges you observe to the Dry Weather Mentoring Program at Prince William County Department of Public Works (703) 792-7070. Remember, only rain should go down the storm drain.

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