Step 3: NPDES Permitting Process
Now that you have a general understanding of the purpose and goals of the Clean Water Act, let’s focus on the NPDES permitting process. Understanding the permitting process is critical for anyone wanting to use the Clean Water Act as a tool for protecting and restoring Georgia’s waters.
Who Receives NPDES Permits?
Under both Georgia and federal law, all facilities that intend to discharge from a "point source" are required to obtain an NPDES permit. A point source is a discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance of pollution (e.g. a pipe, ditch, etc.). The requirements in each permit are contained in EPD's water quality regulations. These rules can be found here. Here are some examples of facilities that must obtain NPDES permits:
- Municipal sewage treatment plants – Municipal sewage treatment plants collect and treat wastewater from both industrial and residential users. The content of the wastewater may differ dramatically depending on whether the plant accepts waste from industrial users or merely from residential users. Municipalities discharge waste either as direct discharges (dumping waste directly into the water), or through sludge application. Typically, sludge application is the method where the municipality applies the waste to agricultural or rural land.
- Industries – The manufacturing process for most products results in a wide variety of by-products that must be disposed of in some fashion. Industries typically obtain NPDES permits in order to discharge these by-products–or pollutants–directly. For example, a facility that generates heavy metals (zinc, copper, lead, etc.) or other chemicals (e.g. cyanide) might obtain a permit from EPD to dispose of these materials by discharging them directly into the waterways. The alternative method is indirect discharge. The industry may obtain a permit to become an industrial user, allowing it to discharge waste indirectly by funneling it to a municipal sewage treatment plant.
- Construction sites/Urban areas affecting stormwater – Entities that pollute stormwater must also obtain NPDES permits. Urban storm sewers typically channel polluted runoff from streets, rooftops, parking lots, and other surfaces to water bodies. Controlling this major source of pollution is critical to improving and maintaining water quality in most populated areas of the country. Construction can also generate silt-laden runoff that threatens the quality of our rivers, streams, and lakes. For more information on stormwater controls, you may want to visit this guide which was created by GreenLaw and Upper Chattachoochee Riverkeeper.
- Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs or large-scale animal production facilities) – must obtain NPDES permits under Georgia’s rules. There are two sets of rules, one for swine operations and one for non-swine operations.
- Other Point Sources – Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of entities subject to the NPDES program. Regardless of whether they fit into one of the above categories, all point sources must obtain NPDES permits before discharging into our waterways.
Common Pollutants Regulated in NPDES Permits
You are probably wondering what types of pollutants permitted facilities are discharging and what effects these pollutants have on water quality. NPDES permits generally regulate three categories of pollutants: conventional pollutants, toxic pollutants, and non-conventional pollutants. This section discusses each of these categories and provides a list of some of the most common pollutants being discharged into Georgia’s waters.
Conventional are those specifically defined in the federal regulations at 40 C.F.R. Sec. 401.16 and are representative of basic sewage components. They are biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), total suspended solids (TSS), fecal coliform bacteria, oil and grease, and pH. These are relatively easy to test for and used for the basic limits in most permits. For example, all sewage treatment plant permits should have limits for all of these, except oil and grease. For industrial permits or sewage plants that need more advanced treatment due to the complexity of the waste make up or due to the size or sensitivity of the receiving stream, additional pollutants or parameters will need to be put in the permit.
Toxic pollutants are those pollutants that are particularly harmful to animals (including humans). Toxic pollutants cause death, disease, behavioral abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutations, physiological malfunctions, or physical deformations in organisms that ingest or absorb them. The quantities and length of exposure necessary to cause these effects can vary widely.
Toxic pollutants are grouped into two categories: organics and metals. Organics include such things as pesticides, solvents, PCBs, and dioxins. Common metals include lead, silver, mercury, copper, chromium, zinc, nickel, and cadmium. Toxicity of heavy metals can kill fish, contaminate their flesh (decreasing their value as a food source), and impair water supplies.
Non-conventional pollutants are those substances that are not classified as conventional pollutants or toxic pollutants but sometimes need to be included in permits due to the nature of the waste and/or to protect the receiving stream. Nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen are common non-conventional pollutants.
Examples of common pollutants:
- BOD – The five-day biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) is a measure of the organic strength or food value to the small organisms that can consume the waste. It is similar to the caloric content of food. BOD doesn’t measure a particular chemical, but rather the general organic decay strength of the waste. It is called a “lumped parameter” because it is a measure of the impact of multiple pollutants, not the amount of a particular chemical. This is a common parameter violated by wastewater treatment plants.
- Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) – A measure of the oxygen required to oxidize all compounds, both organic and inorganic, in water.
- Chlorine – Chlorine is added to water or wastewater, generally for the purpose of disinfection, but frequently for accomplishing other biological or chemical results. Chlorine also is used almost universally in manufacturing processes, particularly for the plastics industry.
- Copper – This is a heavy metal. Trace quantities of heavy metals are necessary for the growth of biological life, but excessive quantities will interfere with many of the beneficial uses of the water because of their toxicity. Toxicity of heavy metals can kill fish, contaminate their flesh (decreasing their value as a source of food), and impair water supplies.
- Cyanide – Cyanide is a very poisonous chemical. High levels will damage the cardiovascular system, central nervous system, kidneys, and all vital organs. A teaspoonful of 2-percent cyanide solution can kill a human adult. Cyanide is one of the most toxic chemicals to which fish are likely to be exposed. Fish are about 1,000 times more sensitive to cyanide than are humans.
- Dissolved Oxygen (DO) – The oxygen freely available in water, vital to fish and other aquatic life. Adequate dissolved oxygen levels are absolutely vital for a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Low dissolved oxygen can kill fish and other aquatic life and hinder the water body’s ability to break down pollutants and other organic matter. Because dissolved oxygen is important both for fish and other species and for the breakdown of organic matter, it is an important measure of water quality. Excessive pollutant loading into a water body causes eutrophication resulting in the rapid growth of plant life and the depletion of dissolved oxygen. (In Georgia, water quality standards require a DO of no less than 5.0 mg/l with an average of 6.0 mg/l, with a daily average of 5.0 mg/l and a minimum of 4.0 mg/l for waters supporting warm water species of fish.)
- Fecal Coliform – This conventional pollutant is a bacteria found in the digestive tracks of humans and animals. Its presence in water potentially indicates the presence of pathogenic organisms.
- pH – pH measures the intensity of the basic or acidic condition of a liquid. pH levels may vary up to 14, with the lowest numbers being the most acidic, 14 the most basic, and 7 neutral. Natural waters usually have a pH between 6.5 and 8.5 (the permitted pH range for waters in Georgia). This limit is intended to protect the receiving stream from extremely basic or acidic discharges that can negatively affect the dissolved oxygen levels available to plants and animals.
- Lead – Lead is a heavy metal. Trace quantities of heavy metals are necessary for the growth of biological life, but excessive quantities are toxic and will interfere with many of the beneficial uses of the water. Toxicity of heavy metals can kill fish, contaminate their flesh (decreasing their value as a source of food), and impair water supplies.
- Phosphorus – Phosphorous is naturally occurring in many forms in soil and water, but in high concentrations, it stimulates algal growth and causes low dissolved oxygen levels (i.e., robs the water of oxygen).
- Temperature – Georgia’s water quality standards provide for a maximum of 90° and/or rise of 5° above ambient temperature (for example, if the temperature of the water is 50°, it is unlawful to change that by more than 5°). More stringent rules apply to trout streams. Water temperature is one of the most significant environmental factors mediating aquatic productivity. Temperature affects virtually all metabolic processes of plant and animals, stimulates and controls reproduction, affects the solubility and diffusion of gases like dissolved oxygen, and affects distribution patterns of plants and animals. Higher than average water temperatures can kill animals and plants.
- Total Suspended Solids (TSS) – A measure of the suspended solids in wastewater, effluent, or water bodies, determined by tests for "total suspended non-filterable solids."
- Turbidity – Haziness in air caused by the presence of particles and pollutants or a cloudy condition in water due to suspended silt or organic matter.
- Zinc – This is a heavy metal. Trace quantities of heavy metals are necessary for the growth of biological life, but, excessive quantities are toxic and will interfere with many of the beneficial uses of the water, Toxicity of heavy metals can kill fish, contaminate their flesh (decreasing their value as a source of food), and impair water supplies.
These are just some examples of pollutants that you might see in a permit. Other limits may be placed for color, oil & grease, and many chemicals not listed here.
Go to STEP FOUR.