Many of you have no clue what POTW stands for. But, it is the POTW that can create a problem for you and your customers. POTW stands for Publicly Owned Treatment Works, or in other words, the sewage treatment plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates all POTWs. Included in these regulations are requirements regarding acceptable discharge into the public sewer system. Of course, this discharge comes from the sewers of various buildings -- the sewers that you are installing. The federal regulations apply to waste other than normal sanitary waste. Exempt discharges include water closets, urinals, lavatories, showers, bathtubs, drinking fountains, kitchen sinks and service sinks.

This means that any other discharge into the public sewer system may be regulated under the Clean Water Act. Included would be waste from chemistry laboratories, photo processing facilities, medical waste from hospitals and medical buildings, grease-laden waste from restaurants, and industrial waste from industrial processes. Many of your commercial buildings fall into this area of regulation.

If the quality of the discharge is poor, the building owner may be required to pretreat the waste prior to having it discharged to the POTW. A typical example would be the installation of a grease interceptor in a fast-food restaurant.

When in doubt, it's best to have the nonplumbing-fixture waste analyzed to determine the adequacy for discharging to the POTW. In most situations, the POTW will work with you and the building owner to evaluate the waste and the impact on the treatment plant. Failure to comply can result in some hefty fines.

States, Too

The federal government also permits the states to regulate waste discharging to the POTW, as long as the state regulations are consistent with the federal regulations. Not surprisingly, states cannot reduce the federal requirements. The feds also permit local POTWs to further regulate the waste discharge. This is where problems can arise. Local POTWs sometimes consider it their mission to find problems where problems don't exist.

For example, the local sewer ordinance in Sandwich, Ill., has been driving the businesses in town crazy, causing great expense to the local owners. One large injection molding plant had to spend more than $250,000 in testing, inspecting and modifying the sewer connection in its plant. All to prove that the sanitary waste from the plumbing fixtures has excessive quantities of ammonia in the waste discharge. The plant is relatively new and the fixtures are all low-flow fixtures. With the reduction in the amount of water use, the ammonia concentration increases. Of course, the ammonia is developed from the urine that is discharged into the fixtures.

Down the road from this plant, it gets worse. A good friend of mine owns a much smaller injection molding plant. The only discharge from his facility is from the plumbing fixtures. Because it is an industrial building, Sandwich officials decided to classify the waste discharge as industrial waste. You read that correctly, the sanitary waste was arbitrarily reclassified by the town as industrial waste.

There are benefits to Sandwich for reclassifying the waste as industrial waste. They can impose large fines if the ammonia discharge concentration is too high -- which it will be. They can also impose high inspection fees and testing fees on the business.

Rather than give in to the town's stupidity, my friend decided to challenge the classification. In most communities, the response would be, "Oops, somebody made a mistake."

But, not in Sandwich, Ill. The city hired a high-powered law firm from downtown Chicago. Most intelligent law firms would have looked at the town's case and said, "What are you nuts, you guys made a mistake."

But, again, that didn't happen with this law firm. They saw big attorney fees. So they filed a lawsuit against the building owner. The owner decided to do the honorable thing, stand up for what is right. His attorney thought the city was nuts. So they started on a course of trying to dismiss the case. After countless hours of negotiating, the city's response was, "We're going to beat you in court."

No Deals

So off to court with this case. The first judge thought it was crazy and ordered the parties to meet in an effort to settle. The retired judge that was selected to mediate thought it would be easy to settle this ridiculous case. But to no avail. In the end, Sandwich officials first wanted $40,000, then $70,000, then $80,000, then more than $120,000. The owner said he wasn't paying for the town's stupidity of pursuing the case and paying an attorney, especially when there is no problem. Remember, he only discharges waste from the plumbing fixtures in the toilet rooms into the public sewer.

To date, the owner of the building has spent more than $100,000 to defend his honor. Sandwich has portrayed him as a bad guy. He is not cooperating with town government. He is a rebel rouser.

The town's position was very straightforward: "We have the right to regulate sewage however we like. And, we consider the building to have industrial discharge."

The town did not present much of a case. Of course, they didn't have much of a case. In legal circles, municipal governments are given the benefit of the doubt, even if they are stupid. The building owner presented a very good defense, since it was a rather easy case to defend.

If you didn't know better, you would think I am making all of this up. Well, I am not. Yes, it is better than a soap opera. Many times, the truth is stranger than fiction. This is one of those cases. I'd think twice before building anything in Sandwich, Ill.

You'll have to wait to hear the outcome. As we go to press, the trial is still ongoing. The judge will probably rule by September; however, he expects an appeal, no matter which way the ruling. I'll keep you informed.