A new agreement between federal and tribal regulators and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority shows six sewage treatment plants across the Navajo Nation in Arizona have been violating Clean Water Act regulations for years.
The facilities in Tuba City, Kayenta, Ganado, Navajo Townsite, Pinon and Chinle were found to be discharging wastewater that exceeded pollutant and bacterial limits, posing potential risks to human health and aquatic wildlife, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Total effluent released from all plants, which discharge into the Little Colorado River and a tributary of the San Juan River, also was found to be in excess of permitted limits.
Other violations included inadequate staffing, wastewater that was released prior to full treatment, failure to submit complete and timely reports and generally inadequate maintenance and operation of the treatment systems.
Under separate agreements with the U.S. EPA and Navajo Nation EPA, the tribally owned utility agreed to spend $6 million to get its treatment plants back into compliance.
The offenses were the latest among a number of violations that NTUA Deputy General Manager Rex Kontz attributed in part to a reliance on immediate, Band aid-type fixes that failed to address the bigger problem.
“We have a long history of us doing short-term compliance fixes that are short-lived, then we’re back in the same situation,” Kontz said.
NTUA’s past violations, including one at its Window Rock wastwater treatment facility that required $10 million in plant upgrades, have been similar in terms of type and severity, according to EPA spokesperson Margot Perez-Sullivan.
The root cause of the most recent violations is infrastructure age, Kontz said.
“The main thing is they are just old systems and the communities have grown,” he said. The effect is that demand on the systems is beginning to exceed capacity, he said.
Along with the improvements mandated by the EPA agreements, NTUA is planning major overhauls to its treatment plants in Kayenta and Tuba City to expand capacity and transition them from lagoon systems to those that use chemical and mechanical digestion to treat wastewater, Kontz said. The difficulty is securing the millions of dollars in grant funding and loans needed to cover such improvement costs so the entire burden doesn’t fall on ratepayers, he said.
Tribal utility violations widespread
Evidence in the EPA’s reports that some of NTUA’s violations have been going on for years is more common than one might guess, said Manny Teodoro an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. Teodoro is the primary author of a recent paper about inspections, enforcement and violations of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act at tribal drinking water and wastewater facilities.
“Tribal and nontribal, a lot of facilities are perennially out of compliance,” Teodoro said. “There are some facilities that just violate year in and year out.”
In a five-year analysis of tribal versus non-tribal facilities, however, Teodoro’s research team found that tribal facilities receive significantly fewer inspections and enforcement actions, while they tend to have more recorded violations.
Specifically, the paper states that tribal wastewater treatment facilities saw approximately 44 percent fewer Clean Water Act inspections than nontribal facilities while tribal facilities that violated the federal water law were out of compliance for 23 percent more quarterly enforcement periods than their nontribal counterparts.
The reasons the authors suggest for the disparities echo some of those Kontz named as challenges faced by NTUA.
Tribal facilities often lack the human and financial capital necessary to maintain systems that remain compliant with environmental regulations, the authors wrote. That disadvantage goes back to the 1970s and early 1980s when the federal government, in the wake of major environmental lawmaking, issued a stream of federal dollars to help fund the construction of local water and sewer infrastructure, they wrote. But because tribes were not yet subject to federal water protection laws, they missed out on that initial boost of funding.
“It’s almost a dead certainty that nontribal facilities have received far more in federal and state grants for facilities,” Teodoro said.
The location of tribal treatment plants in more isolated, hard-to-access areas as well as the lesser political clout exerted by tribes in general could explain regulators’ less frequent visits to these areas, according to Teodoro.
“These disparities carry troubling implications for environmental justice, since tribal governance is inexorably caught up in racial conflicts past and present — conflicts that often have centered on environmental resources,” the paper concludes.
The story may be a bit different for Navajo water and wastewater treatment facilities, though. Teodoro also is looking into tribes like the Navajo Nation that have assumed enforcement authority over drinking water standards and his initial research suggests their oversight may be more thorough.
He said he is still parsing the exact effects of tribal primacy authority over environmental regulations.
“There might be some important differences there, though,” he said.