10/6/2004

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Contact: Roger Martin, KU Center for Research, (785) 864-7239

KU economist: Threat of enforcement by EPA, KDHE effective in pollution control

LAWRENCE -- Improving the compliance of Kansas wastewater treatment plants that operate under legally mandated pollution limits takes more than a threat of inspection, says a University of Kansas economist.

The Environmental Protection Agency or Kansas Department of Health and Environment have to inspect plants or enforce regulations to change behavior at the plants, according to a study by Dietrich Earnhart, KU associate professor of economics.

Moreover, Earnhart says, an EPA threat of enforcement is a stronger spur to change than one from the KDHE.

"In general," he says, "if you bring in the feds, people take that more seriously."

Earnhart reported his findings this summer in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. He used databases and statistical tools to study the polluting behavior of 40 Kansas wastewater treatment plants between 1990 and 1998.

"Federal reports have demonstrated that many facilities are not complying with environmental regulations, including wastewater effluent limits," Earnhart said.

The Kansas plants are doing pretty well in that regard, he noted, given that they discharge on average only a little more than half their legally allowed monthly volume.

Water treatment plants and industrial facilities are the two main categories of polluters identified in the Clean Water Act.

For a plant to be included in Earnhart's study, it had to serve more than 10,000 people, discharge more than a million gallons of liquid a day into the environment or have a significant impact on the body of water that receives the discharge.

Earnhart said that, during the study period, the permits that regulated the discharges at these facilities had expired nearly one-third of the time. The average duration of the expiration, Earnhart said, was almost 194 days.

For the study, Earnhart concentrated on biological oxygen demand, or BOD, wastewater discharges, which he termed "the main type of pollutant discharged by municipal wastewater treatment plants."

At the 40 treatment plants he studied, BOD emissions were, on average, 55 percent less than their legally permitted monthly volume.

But averages don't tell the whole story. Surges occur, the highest in the study being 1,453 percent above permitted BOD levels.

Earnhart cautioned, however, against "putting too much weight on that one data point."

During the study period, Earnhart found, the EPA imposed five fines against Kansas facilities. Only one of those, he said, was levied against a major municipal water plant. The KDHE took 43 enforcement actions, 10 involving major facilities.

Other findings from Earnhart's study:
-- The number of EPA inspections of wastewater treatment plants in Kansas dropped from 56 in 1990 to 7 in 1998. The number of KDHE inspections fell by more than 50 percent during that period.
-- Both EPA and KDHE inspected more frequently in communities where the average educational level was higher.
-- Both inspected less frequently in larger communities.
-- KDHE was less likely to inspect in communities with higher unemployment, while to EPA this factor made no difference.
-- KDHE was less likely to inspect in communities that had more Republicans, while to EPA political affiliation didn't matter.
-- Facilities with expired permits underperform those with valid permits and the underperformance increases as the length of the expiration increases.

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