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PWS Authority Pleads Guilty to Clean Water Act Violations

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority Pleads Guilty to Clean Water Act Violations

PITTSBURGH (STL.News) The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), headquartered in downtown Pittsburgh, has pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of violating the Clean Water Act, United States Attorney Scott W. Brady announced today.

PWSA pleaded guilty to one count of violating its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit (the NPDES Permit) by discharging sludge into the Allegheny River and to one count of making false statements in written reports about the amount of sludge it was sending to a waste treatment facility before Judge William S. Stickman, IV. Under the terms of the plea agreement, PWSA will agree to adhere to the terms of a comprehensive environmental compliance program.

According to information presented to the Court, PWSA violated its NPDES permit when employees at the Aspinwall Drinking Water Treatment Plant discharged sludge generated during the drinking water treatment process into the Allegheny River.  During this process various chemicals are added to water drawn from Allegheny River.  These chemicals cause small particles suspended in the water to clump together.  Afterwards, the partially treated water was pumped to two large sedimentation basins.  The water was transferred back to the Aspinwall Plant where it was subjected to a clarification process.

This took place in a facility known as the Clarifier Building, which contains four large concrete basins known as clarifiers.  The addition of chemicals to the water promoted the generation of additional clumps of solids which settled on the bottom of each clarifier and were pumped to a large concrete structure located near the banks of the Allegheny River.  The solids were referred to as sludge and the large concrete pit was referred to as “the sludge pit,” “the ALCOSAN pit,” or “FM-5.” FM-5 had pipes that led to the Allegheny River and sewer line.

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Under the terms of its NPDES Permit, PWSA was only permitted to discharge storm runoff water and water referred to as “clarifier blowdown” into the river.  PWSA was not permitted to discharge clarifier sludge into the Allegheny River.

Instead, between 2010 and May 2017, PWSA employees and supervisors at the Aspinwall Plant diverted and discharged sludge into the Allegheny River.  By using electronic or manual controls at FM-5, the employees caused the sludge to flow from FM-5 to a discharge point known as Outfall 012 and then into the Allegheny River.

At various points, plumes of discolored water, some of which were several hundred feet long, and solids were visible in the river.  Over time, the sludge discharge resulted in a buildup of solids. Employees at the Aspinwall Plant referred to the buildup as an island.  Birds were also observed walking on the island when the river levels were low.  The river’s current dissipated the island over time, but the island would reappear when new discharges occurred.

PWSA had also been issued a Clean Water Industrial User Permit.  Under the terms of this permit, PWSA was permitted to ship a million of gallons of sludge per day to ALCOSAN’s waste treatment facility.  The permit required PWSA to determine the daily amount of sludge with flow meters.  PWSA installed flow meters at FM-5 and at the clarifier basins.  The readings from the meters had to be included in bi-annual reports PWSA was required to submit under the penalties of perjury to ALCOSAN.

The flow meters at two of the clarifier basins broke in or around late December 2014 or early January 2015.  The meter at FM-5 also broke and was inactive by early 2016.  As a result, PWSA supervisors at the plant instructed the plant’s operators to estimate the amount of sludge flowing from the clarifier basins to FM-5 and from there to the ALCOSAN facility.  These estimates were included the reports sent to ALCOSAN.  These reports also represented that PWSA’s employees periodically checked the calibration of the sludge flow meters to ensure they were within factory limits.  Each report was signed by a PWSA representative as being “true, accurate, and complete.”

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In July 2019, PWSA’s management obtained approval from PWSA’s Board of Directors for funds in “the amount of $47,852.71 to furnish and install four new flow meters for the sludge valves associated with each of the four clarifiers at the Aspinwall Water Treatment Plant.” On January 15, 2020, investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an attorney from the United States Attorney’s Office, and an attorney from EPA, Criminal Investigations were at the Aspinwall Plant to interview employees and tour the facility.  Part of the tour included a walk through the Clarifier Building and past the meters.  No mention as to the inoperability of the meters was made.  The following day, two of PWSA’s employees of informed the investigators and the prosecutors that the meters were broken and had been for years.  In February 2020, PWSA replaced the sludge flow meters, more than five years after they broke.

Under the terms of the plea agreement PWSA will be placed on probation for a period of 3 years.  In lieu of a fine, PWSA will be required to pay $500,000 into a self-funded Compliance Fund.  Under the terms of the plea agreement, PWSA is not permitted to include the fund’s cost in any rate proposal to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.  The fund will be used to pay for a comprehensive environmental compliance program to which PWSA must adhere.  This program will be subject to the approval of the United States Attorney’s Office and will focus on the production of drinking water; PWSA’s compliance with it NPDES and Industrial User Permits; and the proper storage of chemicals at the plant.

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The United States Attorney’s Office and the EPA have the right to monitor the plan during PWSA’s probation.  PWSA will also be required to provide annual environmental audits to the United States Attorney’s Office and the EPA.  These audits will also be available on the Authority’s website for the public’s benefit.  PWSA will also be required to install an Environmental Compliance Manager at the Aspinwall Plant.  This individual will be authorized to receive complaints and conduct investigations concerning environmental issues occurring at the plant.  PWSA is also required to ensure that its employees can report environmental violations without fear of retaliation or retribution.

Sentencing is scheduled for May 18, 2021 at 10:30 am.

Assistant United States Attorney Michael Leo Ivory and Martin Harrell, an attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency, Criminal Enforcement, are prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.

The Environmental Protection Agency conducted the investigation that led to the prosecution of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

SOURCE: USDOJ.Today