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Water: Monitoring & Assessment

Clean Water Act Section 301(h): Waivers from Secondary Treatment for Ocean Discharges

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. Section 301(h) was amended in 1981, and again in 1987 (Water Quality Act Amendments). EPA issued amendments to the section 301(h) regulations in 1982, and again in 1994 and 1996 to implement these statutory changes and reflect program experience. The 1994 Amended Technical Support Document superceded the 1979 TSD and 1982 Revised TSD.

Among other things, the statute requires that the discharger:

  • Protect and propagate a balanced indigenous population of shellfish, fish, and wildlife
  • Meet water quality standards (or water quality criteria for pollutants without WQS)
  • Establish a monitoring program to assess impacts
  • Provide a minimum of primary or equivalent treatment
  • Have an approved pretreatment program and establish toxics controls
  • Provide enhanced urban area pretreatment, for POTWs serving greater than 50,000 population
  • Protect water supplies
  • Meet water quality requirements to allow recreational activities
  • Prohibit waivers in stressed estuaries

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