Public Owns Habitual Polluter By Greg Cantrell Congratulations! You have become part owner of the worst industrial polluter in the Houston-Galveston area and probably one of the worst polluters in the state. You can thank the EPA for this recent windfall, but the state of Texas also lent a hand through a hybrid governmental entity called the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority, sometimes referred to as “the Authority,” which is the shorthand term Gulf Coast often uses to describe itself. The Authority owns and operates the Washburn Tunnel plant which treats the liquid wastes generated by several private industries located along the Houston Ship Channel. Washburn, according to data the plant itself must submit to the EPA, violated its federal permit more than 100 times from mid-1977 to mid1980, making it the worst industrial polluter among the 25 largest treatment plants in the Houston-Galveston area. Most of these plants are owned and operated by private industry. Washburn isn’t. Just how you ended up with a piece of the Washburn plant and three other similar type facilities which are owned and operated by the Authority is a complicated story that begins in the early 1970s when the Houston Ship Channel was one of the most polluted waterways in the world. To help alleviate the situation, the legislature created the Gulf Coast Waste Disposal Authority and endowed it with a wide range of powers both as a regulatory agency and as a financial institution. During its ten-year history, the Authority has provided private industry with more than half a billion dollars in tax-free bonds. Some of those bonds were used by the Authority to buy the Washburn plant from private industry. Gulf Coast hooked several other companies into the facility and paid off the tax-free bonds with the money it made by charging private industry to treat its wastes. A series of permit violations at the Washburn plant in the late 1970s led to an EPA suit against Gulf Coast and against the two companies accused of Galveston causing the violations by pumping more pollution to the Washburn facility than it could handle. Most environmentalists weren’t surprised when Gulf Coast came to the defense of the two companies that were involved. The Authbrity’s reaction to the suit simply confirmed what many critics had long suspected that Gulf Coast was set up as a “buffer” between industry and federal enforcement action. In response to the suit, the Authority claimed that it was the only party that could be sued for the violations since Washburn was a “POTW,” an acronym that stands for “publicly-owned treatment works.” According to Gulf Coast’s reading of the law, the Washburn plant fell into the POTW category. That meant only the owner and operator could be sued and not the contributors to the facility. The Authority took the same stance when it came to its other industrial wastewater plants. Justice Department lawyers predicted that the effects to the environment would be “devastating” if Gulf Coast’s plants were ruled to be POTW’s, a term the Justice Department said referred only to municipal sewage treatment plants which were truly publicly-owned and publicly-used. The bottom line was painfully obvious to most environmentalists. The Authority was claiming that its industrial facilities like Washburn were nothing more than municipal sewage treatment plants. If the EPA backed up that claim, the Authority would be eligible for the same federal funds that the overloaded municipal sewage plants in the Houston-Galveston area fight so hard for. Most seriously, the federal government would lose the ability at Gulf Coast’s facilities to monitor certain kinds of hazardous wastes that aren’t generated by municipal plants. Technical experts found it laughable that an industrial treatment plant like Washburn would only be required to meet the less strict standards of a municipal sewage facility. Those experts point out that industrial sewage is nothing like human sewage. Mother nature can usually handle whatever we process through our bodies and then through a sewage treatment plant. But Mother Nature isn’t built to absorb the man-made wastes, that are produced when making petro-chemical products, which are, of course, the economic backbone of the HoustonGalveston area. Those wastes require sophisticated treatment before they are even bearable for Mother Nature far more sophisticated treatment than you find at a municipal sewage plant. Last summer, the EPA ruled that the Authority’s plants were not POTWs. No sooner than environmentalists had breathed a sigh of relief, the EPA withdrew its ruling as “moot.” Insiders predicted that the EPA would reverse itself, and this summer it did. Environmentalists distrust the EPA’s claim that Gulf Coast won’t be able to tap the federal treasury for those same dollars which are made available to municipal sewage treatment plants. And EPA officials are “moot” on what effects the ruling will have on the federal government’s ability to regulate some of the hazardous wastes Gulf Coast deals with. The ruling gave the Authority what it has been fighting for since its very inception that its plants are “publiclyowned,” although privately used and that the federal government will have to deal with Gulf Coast if the Feds want to deal with the industries that the Authority represents. In the end, Gulf Coast got off cheap. The POTW ruling came as part of the settlement over the Washburn Tunnel suit. Gulf Coast paid a $31,000 fine, but it got the long-sought POTW ruling it wanted. “We will have to set a system of fines for violations and other control measures,” Jack Davis, the general manager of Gulf Coast, told the Houston Post. Davis failed to point out that Gulf Coast has had the regulatory power since 1970 to “set up a system of fines for violations and other control measures,” but it never has. In fact, Gulf Coast has never filed an enforcement action, although it has the authority to do so. During one 36-month period, there were more than 800 permit violations in the three-county territory where Gulf Coast has enforcement powers. A reporter once asked Davis about the more than 200 permit violations Gulf Coast’s four wastewater treatment plants had committed during a three-year period. “You really caught me kind of at a loss,” Davis responded. He said he was “surprised.” Many environmentalists had the same reaction when they learned that Gulf Coast’s wastewater treatment plants, used primarily by private industry, were suddenly part of the public domain. 0 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7
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