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Experts explain possible EPA involvement in El Paso sewage spill into Rio Grande

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The scope of the Environmental Protection Agency inquiry into the monthslong sewage spill in the Rio Grande is still unclear, but the federal agency has plenty of reasons to wade in and ask questions, Texas environmental policy experts said.

Earlier this month, the EPA Region 6 office in Dallas sent a 15-point request for information to El Paso Water asking about the agency’s data, policies and response to a Westside sewage spill. The letter mandated the agency respond within 20 days.

In August, two corroded steel wastewater mains broke, and El Paso Water has since diverted hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the Rio Grande riverbed just north of Sunland Park.

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Both state and federal officials were tight-lipped about the letter’s significance and hedged when asked if it meant the EPA was opening its own inquiry at the same time as an ongoing investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 establishes federal rules for keeping rivers, streams and lakes clean. The EPA delegates the main responsibility for enforcing clean water to TCEQ, said David Eaton, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies clean river management on the Rio Grande.

David Eaton

“The EPA certainly could, under any circumstance, request information if they feel that there is a violation of the permit program, but TCEQ normally enforces any consequences on institutions that violate their permits,” Eaton said.

Some of the rationales for the federal agency to step in, Eaton said, include the binational importance of the Rio Grande, the spill’s interstate nature as it crosses into New Mexico at certain points, or if the EPA has concerns about the state’s response.

Sheila Olmstead, a UT-Austin professor in resource management, said a similar investigation occurred when she was studying shale gas development in Pennsylvania. Municipal waste plants were treating highly saline water from shale gas developers, she said, and while the state agency was monitoring the situation, the EPA intervened.

Sheila Olmstead

“Federal regulators could think that the state regulatory agency is not acting fast enough, or taking it seriously enough, that would be my best guess,” Olmstead said.

El Paso Water officials said at the time of the main breaks in August there was no other way to alleviate the crisis other than to divert some of the wastewater into the river.

In the four months since, the utility diverted portions of the waste for treatment downstream, and sped up the installation of a replacement fiberglass pipeline.

The replacement is slated to be completed later this month, with diversions to the riverbed ending in January, El Paso Water officials said. The next steps for removing the waste and cleaning the riverbed are set to follow in coming months, they added.

Denise Parra, a spokesperson at El Paso Water, said officials were on track to meet the EPA’s deadline.

“We’ll be able to respond within the given timeframe,” Parra said. “If the EPA requests further information, we’ll work to get the information to them.”

Cover photo: Contractors work to install a new fiberglass pipeline to repair two broken sewage mains in West El Paso. (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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