Maintaining operations at a wastewater treatment plant is critical during the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) and World Health Organization (“WHO”) have advised that the risk of transmission of the virus through sewerage systems is low. Nevertheless, standard good operational and protective protocols normally employed must continue in order to keep the risk low. COVID-19 is a type of virus that is particularly susceptible to disinfection. Standard treatment and disinfectant processes at wastewater treatment plants are expected to be effective to kill the virus.
SPDES Permit and Regulatory Compliance
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) has advised that it will not grant any general waivers from State Pollution Discharge Elimination (“SPDES”) Permit Program requirements and general compliance requirements. Wastewater treatment facility operations must continue to obtain compliance.
If a facility falls into non-compliance with any SPDES requirement or general compliance requirement the facility must identify and report the compliance issues. As required under standard protocols, operators should report non-compliance, the associated circumstances related to non-compliance, and actions to address non-compliance to DEC. The DEC has advised it will consider the overall circumstances and extent of non-compliance, and actions by the facility to resolve issues.
Under the Governor’s Executive Order 202.6 and pursuant to guidance issued by the Empire State Development Office, wastewater treatment facilities are considered essential businesses and are not subject to announced workforce reduction requirements. Plant employees may become sick from COVID-19 and forced to remain at home. This may result in a reduction in available staff. To prepare for such contingencies, treatment plant operators should develop staffing plans, emergency response plans, and operations and maintenance plans, to ensure continued operation of wastewater treatment facilities during the COVID-19 emergency.
Wastewater treatment facilities must not only continue to comply with SPDES permit requirements and general regulatory requirements, but must also comply with guidance and directives issued by the Department of Health to maintain a clean and safe work environment and it is recommended that employees try to maintain social distancing to the extent possible.
It is extremely important that wastewater treatment facilities ensure that workers continue to follow routine practices to prevent exposure to wastewater, including, but not limited to, use of engineering and administrative controls, safe work practices, basic hygiene precautions, and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) normally required for work tasks when handling untreated wastewater. Wastewater treatment facilities are the first line of defense to fight waterborne diseases.
It is important that workers in the wastewater sector stay up-to-date with industry specific information with regards to COVID-19. Please review the guidance documents released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), available here, and Water Environment Federation (“WEF”) available here. Given the fluidity of this rapidly developing situation, we encourage you to reach out to a member of the Keane & Beane Environmental Law Practice Group with questions regarding specific situations. For questions contact Nicholas M. Ward-Willis or Drew Victoria Gamils or any other attorney in our Environmental Law Practice Group.