The Federal Clean Water Act requires that all municipal wastewater treatment plants use primary treatment (using gravity to separate solids from liquids) and secondary treatment (using special strains of aerobic bacteria to break down the organic waste left after primary treatment) before discharging their water. In some cases, however, sewer agencies have been able to use a process known as a 301(h) waiver to get permission to discharge their wastewater with less than full secondary treatment. The Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) in Orange County, California is an example of an agency that, until recently, had received such a waiver. OCSD previously treated about half of their wastewater using secondary treatment and the remainder using only advanced primary treatment. The two wastewater streams were then combined and pumped out a 4-1/2 mile-long outfall pipe into the ocean. The OCSD Board of Directors voted in July 2002 to abandon their waiver and construct secondary treatment facilities. The necessary facilities became fully operational in 2012.
EPA has published a list of dischargers that have a 301(h) waiver. Note that the date of this list is 1994, so there are no doubt additions to or deletions from the list.
The following information on 301(h) waivers is taken from EPA's website. This information is also dated 1994, so there are no doubt several facilities whose status has changed since that time.
In 1972, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, which required Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTWs) to achieve secondary treatment capability by 1977. After passage, some municipalities with POTWs that discharged into marine waters argued that this requirement might be unnecessary on the grounds that marine POTWs usually discharge into deeper waters with large tides and substantial currents, which allow for greater dilution and dispersion than their freshwater counterparts. As a result, Congress added section 301(h) to the Clean Water Act in 1977, allowing for a case-by-case review of treatment requirements for marine dischargers that applied by September 13, 1979. Eligible POTW applicants that met the set of environmentally stringent criteria in section 301(h) would receive a modified National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit waiving the secondary treatment requirements for the conventional pollutants biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), suspended solids (SS), and pH. EPA issued regulations and a technical support document for the 301(h) program in 1979.
Since then, section 301(h) has been amended as follows:
The regulations were revised in 1982 to address these changes in legislation and to reflect program experience.
EPA received 208 301(h) waiver applications prior to the December 29, 1982 deadline for applications. The status of the 208 applications is as follows:
The 9 applications awaiting a decision include some that were tentatively denied and are being revised by the applicants. As you can see from the attached map, the applicants are clustered in only a few states California, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Alaska, and Hawaii in addition to the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Palau.
The majority of 301(h) waiver recipients are small POTWs that discharge less than 5 million gallons per day (MGD). Less than half of the 45 applicants/permittees are located within the continental United States in four states (California, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire). Beyond the continental United States, there are 9 applicants in Alaska 2 in Hawaii, 6 in Puerto Rico, and 8 in U.S. territorial islands in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
A POTW applying for a 301(h) waiver must meet the criteria established in the Clean Water Act, including:
A POTW receiving a 301(h) modified permit is required to monitor the impact of its discharge on the water quality and marine biota. EPA uses the POTWs monitoring results to evaluate applications for permit renewal and compliance with NPDES permit terms and conditions.
To fulfill the requirements of section 303 of the Water Quality Act, EPA has revised the 301(h) regulations, including the following:
EPA published proposed revisions to 301(h) regulations in the Federal Register on January 24, 1991, and held a hearing on the proposed regulations on March 7, 1991, in Washington, D.C. In promulgating the final revised regulations, EPA considered all written and verbal comments on the proposed regulations and on the amended technical support document that were submitted to the Agency during the public comment period. The final revisions were signed by the Administrator on July 14, 1994. The final regulations were published in the Federal Register on August 9, 1994. An amended technical support document has been prepared to accompany the final rule.
Additional sources of information on the 301(h) program include:
Much of the text for this article was taken from: