Next week, over 150 pretreatment professionals from across the country will gather at NACWA’s National Pretreatment & Pollution Prevention Workshop in Greenville, South Carolina. While these pretreatment professionals will look like average people, I like to imagine all of them wearing superhero capes, because I think that they are the unsung heroes that protect the water environment.
Not many people outside of the wastewater community know about pretreatment programs, and even in the wastewater community, the pretreatment people do their jobs so well that they often seem to be below the radar. Since the General Pretreatment Regulations were promulgated in 1983, all POTWs designed to treat more than 5 million gallons per day (mgd), as well as small POTWs that accept waste from industrial users, are required to have local pretreatment programs. The pretreatment programs serve as the regulators of the industries that discharge to their utilities. According to EPA, there are about 1,600 POTWs with local pretreatment programs that regulate 23,000 significant industrial users.
The pretreatment program has been a huge success, significantly reducing the discharges of toxic chemicals to the sewer system. This protects the wastewater treatment processes and prevents chemicals from passing through the treatment plant into the receiving waters. It also prevents situations such as the sewer explosions that occurred in Louisville, Kentucky in 1981, when hexane discharged from a Ralston Purina soybean processing plant caused two miles of sewer and street explosions:
Pretreatment professionals have done so well controlling industrial pollution that they are increasingly being tasked with pollution prevention duties that go beyond the traditional regulation of industrial users. As Melody LaBella, Pollution Prevention Program Coordinator for the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District in Martinez, California, observed, “Pretreatment is changing with changes in pollution. Major pollution used to come from industry, and now small amounts of residential pollution are combining to form tomorrow’s water pollution issues. These are unregulated chemicals.” Pretreatment professionals have been called upon to assist with activities such as unused pharmaceutical take-back programs and public education on the proper disposal of household chemicals, FOG (fats, oils, and greases), and wipes and other non-dispersible products.
Getting all of this done – regulating industrial discharges and teaching citizens to be responsible sewer users – is a huge task, but I have no doubt that the superhero pretreatment professionals will get it all done.