Wastewater Liability

Have you ever wondered (or feared) what would happen if you illegally dumped wastewater? Unfortunately, water pollution violations aren’t uncommon. Punishments range from civil to criminal violations that can lead to jail time. The decision is often dependent upon whether or not defendants understood that their behavior violated the federal Clean Water Act (and continued to act despite this). The Clean Water Act governs water pollution with the goal of preventing water pollution, maintaining the integrity of water sources, and improving wastewater treatment. Violations of the Clean Water Act can result in up to 3 years of jailtime. Violations of similar laws that regulate the handling and disposal of hazardous waste hold comparable penalties.


If you’re in an industry that deals with wastewater, you should understand what sorts of behaviors are permit violations (because they can easily turn into criminal violations). Common permit violations include failing to report spills, falsifying test results, or concealing permit violations. Reporting a violation of an environmental regulation may lead to a fine, but reporting it makes you much less likely to incur criminal charges. Covered up negligent behavior is much more likely to result in criminal charges.


Consider the case in Hawaii involving two men who ran one of the sewage treatment plants. Instead of treating or hauling sludge away from the plant, the waste was deposited into the ocean. Both men were found guilty and sentenced to prison. The case bounced around in appeals courts, but the prison sentence decision was ultimately upheld. Another man in Connecticut—the vice president of a zinc plating company—was sentenced to 21 months in jail for tampering with results so that no permit violation was shown.


While wastewater treatment was originally implemented as a risk reduction process for human health and then the environment, it is now crucial for resource recovery and revenue generation. Dumping untreated water into the ocean is an expense we simply can’t afford. The damage to the environment is obvious, and water needs to be treated as a sustainable resource, not one that we use once and throw away. Similarly, waste should not be carelessly dumped into our valuable water sources.


It’s your responsibility as a business or municipality to be aware of laws and permits regarding industrial wastewater liability. Properly dispose of wastes so you can take care of water and the environment!


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