Toxic chemicals in sewage threaten microbes that combat waste. Greenpeace report warns Boston: new plant likely to break down

High technology has infiltrated the sewers of America. It comes in the form of biological treatment systems that use microbes to neutralize wastes. But the delicate waste-treatment process can be disrupted by toxic chemicals that destroy the helpful microbes.

That is what is happening in Boston and is causing problems for treatment facilities elsewhere in the United States, says the New England chapter of Greenpeace.

Moreover, Greenpeace charges in a recent report, a major treatment plant to be built here will not be able to fulfill its purpose of keeping raw sewage out of Boston Harbor unless local manufacturers are required to quit releasing toxic chemicals into the sewage system.

The need for such prohibition is denied by Paul Keogh, deputy regional administrator for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He says the present system of permitting industries to discharge controlled amounts of chemical waste into public sewer systems, after pretreatment, is the best way to safeguard water quality and ``make sure you get proper operation of the treatment plants.''

Douglas Borgatti, chief of pollution control for New Jersey's Passaic Valley waste water treatment plant (WWTP), says the battle between ``bugs'' and toxic waste is less than apocalyptic. In fact, he says, it's just ``part of normal operating procedure.'' Passaic, among the four largest sewage treatment facilities in the US, was one of four WWTPs that the Greenpeace report said have ``experienced repeated secondary treatment failures'' due to excessive amounts of toxic chemicals in the waste water being

treated. (The others are Patapsco WWTP near Baltimore; Niagara Falls WWTP in Niagara Falls, N.Y.; and Bodis Island WWTP in Springfield, Mass.)

In recent years, Greenpeace has persistently called attention to the presence of raw sewage in Boston Harbor, a condition caused by the inefficiency of existing waste treatment facilities. Ordered to correct the situation by a US District Court judge earlier this year, the state legislature established the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) to carry out the cleanup dictum.

Central to the plan is construction of a new treatment facility on Deer Island in the harbor. But the Greenpeace report says that unless industries that are putting toxic chemical byproducts into the sewage system are curbed, the new $1 billion plant could be rendered useless. The report says, in effect, that industries are not adhering to limits on toxic waste discharges set by the MWRA.

The harbor cleanup, sought for at least two decades, is expected to be accomplished within another 10 years under federal court order. The Greenpeace report recommends that the Boston area water authority ``stop issuing permits for any toxic waste discharges.''

The companies which the Greenpeace report said were discharging excessive amounts of toxic chemicals into the sewer system have denied the charge.

Specialists in sewage treatment and the handling of toxic wastes say the existing regulations work for the most part and will be improved in the next two years.

Dr. Borgatti says the Passaic Valley WWTP ``treats the majority of industrial waste waters in northern New Jersey.'' He says there have been ``no failures. We experience upsets, but that's the nature of the beast.''

``We have good rapport with our industrial customers, but they know that if they don't comply [with regulations] we'll fine them or take them to court,'' Borgatti explains. ``We have a very advanced industrial monitoring structure, with approved EPA pretreatment systems.'' He adds that he is ``very pleased'' with the quality of water the plant releases into New York Harbor.

Explaining that an ``upset'' may occur when a source releases more than the expected quantity of a certain chemical, Borgatti says that in a modern facility such as Passaic, the situation usually can be quickly corrected.

Clifford Randall, a waste-water treatment specialist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, gives a somewhat different perspective. Monitoring the discharge of toxic chemical wastes into sewer systems is ``definitely a problem of national scope,'' he says, and disruptions of municipal sewer systems are frequent -- although they usually adjust fairly quickly. The killing of bacteria used to alter the waste is the problem, he explains.

Jane Bloom, a specialist on toxic wastes for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that when Congress amended the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act earlier, it included a requirement that the EPA provide information by February 1986 on the kinds and quantities of toxic wastes being released into local systems. The amended act also instructs the agency to recommend new laws 18 months after it reports (by about August 1987) and follow up by promulgating new regulations.

Ms. Bloom says that ``many manufacturing processes . . . could be modified to produce less-toxic byproducts.'' She adds that, while toxic byproducts could be avoided in some instances by using alternative raw materials, ``there just has been no initiative for this as yet.''

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