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I'm Here From the Government, I'm Here to Help You

As a regular part of an investigator’s duties, investigations of complaints received from the public had to be completed. On this particular day, the one assigned to me read something like: …County road…children off school bus…walking home…roadside ditch with funny-looking stuff in it. Child stuck finger in funny-looking liquid…flesh was burned. I grabbed my safety gear, jumped in my steel-toe boots, and was on the road to … County. The ditch was easy enough to locate, but the location struck me as oddly solitary for a bus child-drop location or even a business for that matter.

In the ditch, there was certainly a flowing amount of water with the tell-tale sign of industrial run-off – froth. I quick stab with pH paper confirmed an alkaline level high enough to qualify in regulatory definitions as “hazardous waste.” This would certainly have irritated flesh. In my mind, complaint confirmed, and discharging in progress.

Finding the source was easy. Follow the froth upstream. The discharge was coming from a cement mixing plant. It was probably my focus on getting the discharge stopped, and my naïve view that no one would actually harm me while on the job, that caused me to push aside the man’s shotgun pointed at me through the truck side window. I had to push it aside, it was blocking the view between me and the site manager who had come to meet my truck, and I was trying to introduce myself!

And so it started, “I am blah, blah, blah, here from the blah, blah, blah Commission, investigating an anonymous complaint received into our office for discharge into the roadside ditch.” I continued by courteously pushing his gun out of the way so that I could open my truck door and alight. My questions then followed their regular path of “What does this business do?, How is the water used?, and Why is it leaving the site?”

The site manager begrudgingly took me (and the unused rifle) on a site tour. Up at the highest point of the site were the piles of raw materials – sand, cement, maybe gravel – that had to be watered to minimize the particulate-filled dust they kicked up. He growled that the next-door neighbor complained when her house got dusted from their site. “Well wouldn’t you?” I asked. No answer, just a growl. Beside the piles was a very small area for holding the water used to spray the piles for dust control. Farther down the sloped site was the wash pad for rinsing trucks, and the mixing tanks, both of which required water. At the bottom of the slope, and against the road was a small, very small, detention area where the rinsate run-off washing down from the rinsing area in the middle of the site had just naturally collected.

It was from this small detention area that water was easily overflowing onto the driveway, then running off the site into the roadside ditch. As this water was heavily laden with lime from the cement mix, it had an alkaline pH level higher than 12.5. After the site tour, I explained to the site manager that the run-off, especially with the high pH particulates, had to cease going off-site. The site manager responded very angrily that the EPA had already done an inspection on his site and determined that he needed both in NPDES permit and would receive a violation letter and a fine.

From the site tour we had taken, a plan had been formulating in my mind that perhaps the bigger problem in his operations was that the site was just not laid out correctly. After more discussion, I made my suggestion to move the water holding area from the higher and rear portion of the site to the lower portion near the plant entrance. The mixing area and the truck washing area could and should remain in the middle of the site at mid-level, but install a simple drain system to catch the water runoff from these areas and funnel it down into the detention pond in the lower area. As water used in the mixing of the cement batches and the rinsing of trucks did not have to be clean and pristine, water from the detention pond could be reused for these purposes. By hooking together a series of pumps and hoses, water from the detention pond could also be used for dust prevention from the piles of raw material. The caveat? The detention pond must be of a size great enough to hold all of the water so that none left the site.

The site manager paused. The site visit ended with the usual, "I will need a response from you and I will be back to visit the site." Over the next month, I returned to the road outside of the site looking for evidence of discharge. Happily, there was none on my subsequent visits.

After five or six weeks from my initial visit, I return to the site for a follow-up visit. Again as before, I drove my truck onto the site, turned the ignition off, then after fiddling with my seatbelt and notepad, turned to open my door and saw the large site manager standing at my truck window. This time it was not a shotgun that met me, but a large bearhug through the open window of the driver's side door. As I look back on it, I think the bearhug caught me by surprise more than the weapon had on my first visit.

The site manager said he had been looking forward to my return visit to show me all of the improvements. I must admit, the improvements were beyond what I had expected. He said that the rearranging of the site had taken about two weeks and had caused a moderate amount of trouble with trucks driving over the hoses, however, it had been well worth it. Not only had the EPA inspector revisited his site, the enforcement order had been rescinded, as well as the fine, since there was no longer a discharge. No discharge meant no need to have a NPDES permit. As a bonus, the site manager said that his water consumption for the site had also dropped percent. The man was almost giddy as he told me all of these updates. At this point, it just had to be said, "I'm from the government, I'm here to help you." We both laughed knowing that was rarely true.

Back at my office a couple of months later, a notice was sent from our headquarters in Austin asking for facilities which had taken extraordinary measures for the benefit of the environment, to be submitted for a Governor's award. Even though my initial entry onto this site had been harrowing, because of the measures the site manager had taken to reduce water usage and prevent runoff from the site, I submitted his facility's name to receive a Governor's award.