SALT LAKE CITY – If Peter Maier is right, sewage treatment plants across the country are performing a crucial scientific test incorrectly, resulting in widespread pollution of lakes, rivers and streams in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. And they’re doing it with the express approval of the federal government.

Clean Water: The Next Act

At the heart of the engineer’s contention: Our sewage-treatment plants fail to clean up urine.

For three decades Maier has aggressively, even abrasively, pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require different testing of sewage dumped by wastewater treatment plants. Maier says the tests must take better account of how much oxygen the pollution takes out of the waterways where it is dumped, and how much it will encourage the growth of algae that can lead to fish kills.

At stake, Maier says, is whether the country can come closer to meeting critical requirements of the Clean Water Act, passed 40 years ago this month: cleaning up waterways to be fishable and swimmable.

Over those four decades, algae blooms and fish kills have become more common. Scientists increasingly blame this on an overabundance of nutrients in wastewater. One is phosphorus. Another is nitrogen. And nitrogen, Maier says, is being largely ignored because of a botched testing method.

“The way they test now, you get false and misleading information,” Maier said.

One-man crusade

Maier’s one-man crusade into an arcane but important corner of the nation’s sewage-treatment regime is emblematic of the intricate environmental regulatory matters that can have large financial and public-health consequences. How many of those debates, unaffected by a gadfly like Maier, are contributing to what could be an epidemic of short-sighted decisions?

But to return to the story at hand, meet Peter Maier. Educated as an engineer in The Netherlands, he moved to the United States in 1978 to help sell sewage-treatment systems. He settled in the Salt Lake City area. Soon he was criticizing aspects of conventional methods of dealing with human waste in this country.

By the early 1980s Maier had the ear of a committee of the Utah Science and Technology Council, which advised the governor to test Maier’s ideas. Those tests were not done. He later won qualified support from a U.S. government technology office, which said more study was needed. That research wasn’t completed, either.

Maier testified before Congress. He pressed the National Academy of Sciences to get involved. With the backing of two environmental groups, he sued the EPA – all to no avail.

Meanwhile, his obsession with the sewage test undercut his career in the 1980s and 1990s.

Criticisms get new airing

But he didn’t give up the fight. Along the way his in-your-face advocacy has turned off many a bureaucrat, engineer and journalist. His website features a crude drawing of three men sitting on toilets with their pants down. One, labeled “EPA,” covers his eyes. The second, captioned “media,” covers his ears. The third, identified as “environmentalist,” covers his mouth.

All these years later, though, it’s those very environmentalists who are again giving exposure to Maier’s contentions. Environmental groups have filed federal court cases in New York City and New Orleans to try to force the EPA to better control pollution from nutrients.

That’s the very same problem Maier has been blaming on rules that he says allow urine to go untreated as it passes through sewage plants. An overabundance of nutrients causes low oxygen levels and growth of algae. That sets up a deadly cycle. The algae grows, dies and again robs the water of even more oxygen that fish and other aquatic creatures need to survive.

Northern Gulf of Mexico

Gulf of Mexico dead zone marked by tan and
greenish brown plumes

Such over-nutrified waters can be found in every state, the most notorious example nationally being the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Mississippi River delivers massive amounts of nutrients. In the Northwest, examples of affected waterways include Puget Sound and the Spokane River in Washington, Oregon’s Tualatin and Deschutes rivers and, in Idaho, the Boise River and the American Falls Reservoir on the Snake River.

In the New York case, the EPA has until Dec. 14 to say whether it will consider updating its sewage treatment standards based on modern technology’s ability to remove nutrients from wastewater.

Nationally, evidence of harm from nutrients is widespread. One-third of America’s streams and two-fifths of its lakes are polluted by excessive levels of nitrogen – the nutrient Maier is focused on – according to a report earlier this year by leading scientists for the Ecological Society of America, a professional scientific association.

And the EPA’s own Inspector General’s Office criticized the agency for failing to set standards to protect against nutrients, noting the EPA called the problem “critical” at least as early as 1998.

Will this modern emphasis on controlling nutrients vindicate Maier’s decades-long obsession? The outcome of the lawsuits will help spell that out.

Roots of the dispute

A pivotal point in the controversy came in 1984, when the EPA approved a change in the testing procedure that Maier is focused on. That change was an effort to improve the way the test is carried out, but Maier says that’s where the agency went badly astray.

The procedure measures “biochemical oxygen demand,” or BOD, to gauge how much oxygen will be depleted from a water body because of the action of bacteria that digest sewage waste.

Many sewage-treatment plant operators favored the change approved by the EPA; That’s not surprising, considering that for every three plants that had previously been out of compliance with Clean Water Act pollution standards, two suddenly were in compliance – without removing any more pollution.

Maier says the currently employed testing procedures amount to a violation of the trust the public has that the Clean Water Act will really clean up the nation’s waterways.

EPA “has made a huge mistake and it’s having consequences,” Maier said.

The EPA rejected Maier’s recommendation for how to do the pollution-control test in question, which looks at how nitrogen affects oxygen levels in streams and lakes and bays. (Go here for more technical detail on the debate over testing methods.) The EPA said different waterways have different sensitivities to nitrogen.

“Some waters exhibit little or no (nitrogen sensitivity) under all conditions,” the agency wrote in 1984 in response to Maier. “Therefore, the determination of whether (nitrogen) reduction is required should be a case-by-case decision, and should not be applied across-the-board.”

The EPA said instead, regulators would enforce stricter pollution limits on any sewage treatment plant dumping where nitrogen pollution was known to be a particular problem.

And in fact, some plants in the Northwest and around the country are using more advanced technology. Examples include the Budd Inlet treatment plant serving the Olympia-Lacey area of Washington and Seattle’s new Brightwater plant, both of which dump into pollution-scarred Puget Sound.

lott plant image

Budd Inlet treatment plant
Credit: LOTT Cleanwater Alliance

Industry responds

The EPA’s argument that only some plants need to control nitrogen is backed by many in what Maier calls the “environmental-industrial complex.”

“The blanket application of anything has a downside,” said Josh Boltz, an engineer with CH2MHill. Boltz is working on a sewage treatment plant in Bend, Ore. “It makes sense and is appropriate to look at this on a case-by-case basis.”

He said plants dumping into nutrient-sensitive water bodies already are restricted; requiring advanced sewage-treatment plants everywhere would “have marked financial implications without providing (an) equally marked impact on the protection of public health and environmental protection.”

But reasonably low-cost ways exist that could make many sewage plants more effective at cleaning up nutrients, said Ann Alexander, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is spearheading the lawsuits in New York and Louisiana. The environmental group cited Maier’s mid-1990s suit against the EPA when it petitioned the agency to update its sewage-treatment requirements in 2007.

Brightwater Treatment Facility near Seattle
Katie Campbell/EarthFix

Maier “tried to achieve what we are trying to achieve, which is to put out that information and have (the EPA) update their standard,” Alexander said. “A lot of time has passed since his lawsuit and for every year that passes the case becomes stronger that EPA really has to update the standards.”

The Clean Water Act says the government is supposed to update those standards “from time to time” to reflect improvements in sewage-treatment technology.

“ ‘From time to time’ is not expressly defined in the statute, but I think it’s fair to say that something was meant other than waiting 30 years,” Alexander said. “That’s an eternity in technological terms. There has been, I have to say, a lot of water under the bridge since then.”

Maier homes in

Peter Maier was figuratively watching all that water go by, and it frustrated him.

After hitting 65 and retiring, Maier dove into to his passion for improving sewage treatment, for example frequenting comments sections of news outlets whose coverage addresses or even touches on sewage and the Clean Water Act. He also put up a YouTube video entitled “Why You Can Piss in Rivers.”

“They basically by administrative rule ignored all the pollution caused by urine waste,” said Maier, now 76. “I don’t know why.”

In April 1990 Maier addressed the House Water Resources Subcommittee, noting that Congress in the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act promised to clean up all water pollution by 1985.

“Eighteen years later, our open waters are still used as urinals for our cities,” Maier testified then, a phrase he has re-used seemingly at every chance since. “… As long at the EPA does not require correct testing, the water quality in our rivers, bays and oceans will only deteriorate further and the nation will continue to pay a very high price for treatment facilities that hardly provide sewage treatment.”

That’s not the way the EPA and sewage-treatment engineers see it, though.

Boltz, the engineer, for example, says sewage-treatment plant operators have to start planning for expensive overhauls when a plant reaches 80 percent of its capacity, and doing the test the way Maier says it should be done would trigger those costly improvements more quickly.

Virginia Tech University wastewater engineering professor Clifford W. Randall said plants in many places, including Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound, as well as the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, already are removing nitrogen from the waste they dump.

“Mr. Maier’s contention that the BOD5 test is flawed is correct, but his reason for criticizing it is wrongheaded,” Randall wrote in an email. “… Mr. Maier is not raising any points that are not well understood and already a part of standard practice.”

Whether that standard practice meets the letter of the Clean Water Act may be decided in the environmentalists’ lawsuits.

Does critic’s manner undermine message?

One reason Peter Maier has not been more successful could be that he is Peter Maier – a brusque and quick critic who makes no attempt to be friendly to anyone he is criticizing or even trying to convince. And he seems not to care what anyone thinks about him.

Alluding to Maier’s thick Dutch accent, former wastewater engineering executive Lowell Palm, an ally of Maier, explains his inability to break through: “Some of it’s Peter’s foreign-ness and rather abrasive approach to those who might hold opinions different from his. And I think that caused a lot of tension.”

Even Maier’s wife, Dodie, acknowledges: “He wasn’t very polite about it. He turned off a lot of people.”

To Maier, it is remarkable that all these years later he still hasn’t won the day. But now it’s the era of the internet, and is carrying an online petition to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to correct the test. Maier does not seem poised to give up.

“Peter works on nitrogen,” Dodie Maier said. “He considers it his job.”

The EPA declined to provide any scientist or official to be interviewed for this story, despite repeated requests from InvestigateWest. Nor did the agency provide answers to six written questions. The agency, through spokeswoman Julia Valentine, did issue a one-paragraph statement:

“Urine is principally water. It also contains an assortment of inorganic salts and organic compounds, including proteins, hormones, and a wide range of metabolites, varying by what is introduced into the body. One of the major metabolites of urine, ammonia is regulated as a non-conventional pollutant under the NPDES program. Ammonia is frequently controlled by water quality based effluent limits in the permits for publicly-owned treatment works when its discharge poses a risk to the water quality of the receiving stream. Since the other components differ by individual, it would not make sense to regulate urine.”

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Robert McClure

Robert McClure

Robert is co-founder and executive editor of InvestigateWest. At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert exposed a major weakness in the Endangered Species Act and deficiencies in Puget Sound restoration efforts. His reporting on hard-rock mining won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Robert is a longtime former board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists; he currently serves as chair of the editorial board of SEJournal. Seattle Magazine in 2013 chose him as one of Seattle's "most influential" people.

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