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Plain English Guide to Regulations
Wastewater Discharges

Clean Water Act (The Federal Water Pollution Control Act as amended by the Clean Water Act of 1977)

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Summary The primary objective of the Clean Water Act (CWA), is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's surface waters. Pollutants regulated under the CWA include "priority" pollutants, including various toxic pollutants; "conventional" pollutants, such as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), total suspended solids (TSS), fecal coliform, oil and grease, and pH; and "non-conventional" pollutants, including any pollutant not identified as either conventional or priority.

The CWA regulates both direct dischragers and indirect discharges. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program (CWA ยง402) controls direct discharges into navigable waters. Direct discharges or "point source" discharges are from sources such as pipes and sewers. NPDES permits, issued by either EPA or an authorized State (EPA has presently authorized forty States to administer the NPDES program), contain industry-specific, technology-based and/or water quality-based limits, and establish pollutant monitoring and reporting requirements. A facility that intends to discharge into the nation's waters must obtain a permit prior to initiating its discharge. A permit applicant must provide quantitative analytical data identifying the types of pollutants present in the facility's effluent. The permit will then set forth the conditions and effluent limitations under which a facility may make a discharge.

A NPDES permit may also include discharge limits based on Federal or State water quality criteria or standards, that were designed to protect designated uses of surface waters, such as supporting aquatic life or recreation. These standards, unlike the technological standards, generally do not take into account technological feasibility or costs. Water quality criteria and standards vary from State to State, and site to site, depending on the use classification of the receiving body of water. Most States follow EPA guidelines that propose aquatic life and human health criteria for many of the 126 priority pollutants.

Another type of discharge that is regulated by the CWA is one that goes to a publicly-owned treatment works (POTWs). The national pretreatment program (CWA 307(b)) controls the indirect discharge of pollutants to POTWs by "industrial users." Facilities regulated under 307(b) must meet certain pretreatment standards. The goal of the pretreatment program is to:

  1. protect municipal wastewater treatment plants from damage that may occur when hazardous, toxic, or other wastes are discharged into a sewer system and
  2. protect the quality of sludge generated by these plants.
Discharges to a POTW are regulated primarily by the POTW itself, rather than the State or EPA.

EPA has developed technology-based standards for industrial users of POTWs. Different standards apply to existing and new sources within each category. "

Categorical" pretreatment standards applicable to an industry on a nationwide basis are developed by EPA. In addition, another kind of pretreatment standard, "local limits," are developed by the POTW in order to assist the POTW in achieving the effluent limitations in its NPDES permit.

Regardless of whether a State is authorized to implement either the NPDES or the pretreatment program, if it develops its own program, it may enforce requirements more stringent than Federal standards.


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