RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Woe Be to WOTUS If POTUS Has His Way

Summer time. The word sounds like music festivals, county fairs, theater in the park, new construction, and … porta potties!

Yep, I’m talking about those ubiquitous blue boxes that we all hate … except in an emergency. Here in mid-Missouri, where the eclipse will be total in a few weeks, we’ll be seeing porta potties in parks, campgrounds and along roadsides, just to handle the load.

So where does all that load go? It depends. And “depends” has to do with the EPA and Waters of the United States (WOTUS). And, if you’re rural, it could be coming to a lagoon at your neighbor’s or down the creek direct to you. But if you’re urban, it may just come to you in your water.

WOTUS is the policy that the Obama administration signed to put science and common sense into a regulation. We know that if a drop of water is polluted, it stays polluted. Water infused with chemicals carry those chemicals through the entire water cycle which, as we learned in third grade, means into the clouds, into the rain, into the creeks and rivers and the ocean. So, says WOTUS, there should be oversight on waters that are not “navigable.” Meaning those small streams and ditches that run everywhere.

When they are dumped, some of the chemicals can be used by plants, and we count on this to clean the water, but that’s a lot to ask a field of corn or a little blade of grass or a giant oak tree to do. Plants can’t always use everything. They’ll reject heavy metals and poisons, for example. Hence, tap water today contains combinations undreamed of in the past—hormones used in birth control pills, glyphosate used in herbicides. And water testing systems aren’t set up to find those things or to screen them out.

A couple of weeks ago, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, following an order from the President of the United States (POTUS), signed a proposal to rescind WOTUS. When the proposed rule change can be published in the Federal Register, under Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2017-0203, the public will have 30 days to “review and revise” the definition of “waters of the United States.”

If the definition is changed, smaller streams and ponds will be eliminated from regulation, and these smaller streams will be free territory for dumping. As Breitbart reported it, “Farmers argued that the federal regulatory redefinition could usurp state control of water use for America’s entire 247,417,282 acres used in row-crop cultivation.”

And here’s where the porta potty comes in.

Porta potty pollutants, if emptied correctly, will be pumped out into big tanks on semi trucks and trucked to a municipal plant where it joins the city’s poo. More about that later, I promise. But there are lots of reasons to avoid the correct dumping strategy. The charge assessed by the facility cuts into the hauler’s profits. That’s what happened in San Marcos, Calif., where millions of gallons were dumped illegally in the sewers.

Another reason for illegally dumping is that the designated waste facility may be operating under too heavy a load of its own.

Here’s the promised paragraph about the city’s poo: In many cases, the municipal waste treatment system empties into a stream that’s been designated by the EPA as impaired. Limits for the Total Maximum Daily Load, while approved by the EPA, come from each state. In most states, it’s up to the state Department of Natural Resources to work with EPA to create the TMDL standards and test streams for compliance. Ooops … you say your state DNR funds have been cut? Well, there ya go—little or no testing.

But let’s say everything’s running right and the porta potty is dumped into the municipal waste stream and stirred around until it’s just harmless liquid and sludge. Then, what happens to the sludge?

Well, it may be re-named “bio-solids” to be spread on farm land. As of this writing, it is not supposed to be spread on land that raises food for humans but it’s ok to spread it on land raising food for animals.

What you’d expect to find in a porta potty is a pile of normal human deposits, plus toilet paper, swimming in a mysterious blue liquid. That liquid consists of four ingredients: biocides, to kill bacteria, fragrance, blue dye and surfactant to make sure it all mixes together. Companies have their own mixtures, trade secrets, ya know, but the biocides might make you worry a little … are they specific for flies and spiders and germy bacteria? Or do they kill everything?

And, thinking more deeply about the porta-world, you’d realize there might be diapers and feminine products and syringes and pharmaceuticals and illegal drugs and yep, you’d be right. It’s a mess in there.

So, to get back to WOTUS, we need to be sure all these stuffs are handled properly, put into a sewage facility that can handle them, and not just dumped in unmonitored creeks. When your favorite environmental organization asks you to help save WOTUS, please listen!

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2017

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