Pollution Pays

An Analysis of the Failure to Enforce Clean Water Laws in Three States

January 31, 2000

Pollution Pays: The Loophole

Industrial facilities discharging wastewater to public sewage treatment plants -- instead of directly into rivers or streams -- are classified as "minor" under the Clean Water Act, regardless of the volume or toxicity of the pollution that they, quite literally, dump down the drain. This reporting loophole virtually ensures weak enforcement of clean water laws against some major industrial polluters.

States are not required to report the violations or compliance status of "minor" facilities to U.S. EPA. This means, for example, that large auto assembly plants dumping their wastewater down the public sewer are considered minor polluters and their compliance with the CWA is not required to be tracked by the EPA. Instead, the publicly financed sewage treatment facilities that receive this pollution are categorized as "major" polluters if they serve a population of 10,000 or more, discharge one million gallons or more of wastewater daily, or have a significant impact on water quality. Further, public water treatment facilities, as opposed to state enforcement authorities, are required to adopt mechanisms to enforce pretreatment standards against industrial discharges.