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EPA requesting answers from El Paso Water on sewage discharge into Rio Grande

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The Environmental Protection Agency will require El Paso Water to provide information about the utility’s response to the months-long sewage spill that’s caused millions of gallons of wastewater to be diverted into the Rio Grande.

“The information will be considered in the evaluation of the extent of your compliance with the federal regulations regarding unauthorized discharges of untreated wastewater,” Rachel Matthews, a life scientist at the Water Enforcement Branch at EPA’s Dallas Region 6 office, wrote in a Dec. 3 letter to El Paso Water officials.

The EPA has the power to ensure compliance with pollution standards and enforce action under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

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The letter mandated that El Paso Water respond within 20 days.

The request comes as the spill enters its fourth month. In August, two steel wastewater mains broke, and El Paso Water said it had no choice but to dump untreated sewage –- from the toilets, sinks and drains of 17,500 homes –- into the Rio Grande riverbed.

The Rio Grande carries West El Paso’s untreated sewage downriver on Oct. 13. El Paso Water has redirected approximately 10 million gallons of wastewater into the river per day since its Frontera Force pipelines suffered breaks in August. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The EPA laid out 15 requests for additional information, including: correspondence with other government agencies and the public; water quality tests; schematics of the infrastructure; and company policies and inspections of the wastewater mains.

When asked if the agency is conducting its own investigation, Jennah Durant, the EPA Region 6 spokesperson, declined to confirm and instead cited an internal policy.

“In general, EPA doesn’t disclose the status of investigations or confirm whether or not they’re happening,” Durant wrote in an email.

The letter says the utility could face civil or criminal penalties if it fails to respond to the EPA’s request.

El Paso Water is on track to finish construction of a replacement fiberglass pipeline by the end of December, according to an update at a Public Service Board meeting last week. Gilbert Trejo, the chief technical officer for El Paso Water, said another 3.5 miles of pipeline and the treatment plant have to be tested before more diversions into the Rio Grande are halted.

“Total discharge to the river will continue in smaller amounts into January,” Trejo said.

Gilbert Trejo

Trejo told the board at the meeting that a contracted preliminary environmental review is completed and under review from the utility. He said a remediation plan would be completed in January or February, after the utility stops diverting sewage into the riverbed.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state oversight body, opened an investigation into the spill in August, but officials said the agency’s report would be made public only after the remediation is complete.

It’s unclear how the EPA letter bears on TCEQ’s ongoing investigation.

Gary Rasp, a TCEQ spokesperson, said in an email that the state agency was aware the EPA asked for additional information, and said both agencies had communicated “at multiple points” about the spill.

TCEQ is the agency that sets limits on how much pollution wastewater entities can put into rivers, and can also enforce penalties for violations under the Clean Water Act. The EPA often relies on these “delegated agencies” to enforce the federal standards.

“Coordination between TCEQ and EPA on any resultant enforcement action remains to be determined,” Rasp said.

Trejo, from El Paso Water, said the utility is cooperating with information requests from state and federal officials, but said the utility is unclear which agency is taking the lead.

“We’re working with both agencies, asking ‘who’s going to take the lead here?’” he said. “We’re asking for that clarification from TCEQ.”

Cover photo: El Paso Water’s Frontera Force lift station, the site of a severe August breaks. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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