I have an environmental permit to operate a public drinking water system. Pursuant to that permit with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”), I add soda ash to my water to control corrosion in the water distribution system. I then decide that I want to change and use caustic soda instead. Should I first get DEP’s approval?
Absolutely! The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (“PWSA”) discovered the answer to this question the hard way. After DEP recently became aware of PWSA’s unapproved change from soda ash to caustic soda, it ordered PWSA to take a number of costly steps to address this violation. PWSA initiated the switch in chemicals in April 2014 and did not revert to using soda ash until January 2016. Although caustic soda is approved for use by some water systems, its use must be approved DEP and only after there is proof of its effectiveness in each system. The inappropriate use of caustic soda could result in lead and copper leaching out of distribution pipes into the drinking water.
Among other things, DEP’s order requires PWSA to: 1) provide notice to its 300,000 customers describing the change and measures being taken to evaluate its impact; 2) increase sampling for lead and copper; 3) develop a plan to investigate lead levels within its system; and 4) outline in subsequent customer notices details of water sampling and provide updates on the investigation of treatment change impacts. PWSA also faces the possibility of civil penalties.
The moral of this story is if you are considering changes in processes that are permitted by a DEP permit (including air, water, and waste permits), it is important first to seek legal and engineering advice before implementing any change. Some changes could be made without any prior approval, others may require a minor or major modification of your permit. It is preferable to ask these questions up front, rather than face the consequences from DEP.