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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Keeping the Waterways Clean

Fontarome case shows the power and limits of environmental regul

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What’s the best way to ensure that local industries are not sending a harmful amount of chemicals into our sewerage system? If you’re a river-watchdog group, you want the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) to force businesses to stay within the guidelines by levying fines and penalties on industries that do not comply. These river watchers rely on MMSD to enforce environmental regulations because MMSD’s system has no way to treat chemicals that are discharged by industries, such as mercury, ammonia and chloroform.

But if you’re MMSD, you save the heavy penalties for the worst offenders only. Instead, you try to work with industry to keep companies within their limits and maintain a healthy business climate.

Going Over the Limit
A recent chemical discharge case, which involves St. Francis-based pharmaceutical and fragrance manufacturer Fontarome Chemical, MMSD and the environmental group Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers (FMR), shows the limits and potential of environmental regulations and pressure from outside groups.

The case made headlines last year, when Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers noted that Fontarome Chemical had been discharging more chemicals into MMSD’s system than it was permitted to do. FMR noted that Fontarome has been on MMSD’s list of “significant non-compliance” for all of 2005, part of 2006 and the first half of 2007. FMR alleges that Fontarome has sent too much toluene, mercury, ammonia, zinc, chloroform, oil/grease and other chemicals into MMSD’s system, which then flows out to Lake Michigan.

FMR wanted Fontarome to stop violating its permit for chemical discharges because MMSD’s system isn’t designed to treat this type of industrial waste. “MMSD issues permits to industries and they require the industries to pre-treat the waste or only discharge it in very limited amounts that they have deemed safe when it gets into Lake Michigan,” said Melissa Scanlon, attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, which is acting on behalf of FMR. “Any violation of the permit—above those limits—is unlikely to be filtered out later at Jones Island. It’s not designed to deal with it.”

Since MMSD didn’t seem to be acting on Fontarome’s violations, FMR sent the company a letter last December, saying that it intended to sue the company unless it cleaned up its act. By law, FMR had to give the company a 60-day warning before filing the suit, so that the company could right its wrongs.

Scanlon said she’d hoped that Fontarome would install a treatment system that would help to reduce the amount of chemicals flowing into Milwaukee’s waterways. She added that she hoped MMSD would impose a stiff fine on Fontarome, and in doing so send a strong signal to other violators that they should take their permit limits very seriously.

“I thought that we would be seeing the company install something that would reduce pollution and set them up to be a model for other pharmaceutical companies,” Scanlon said of Fontarome’s response. “But they changed course.”

Stopping the Violations, Ending the Case
In response to the warning, Fontarome didn’t install new treatment equipment or reduce its chemical discharge as Scanlon had hoped—instead, it now collects what it would normally discharge into the MMSD system and ships it to another chemical treatment facility.

Since Fontarome is not discharging anything into MMSD’s system, it’s no longer violating its permit. FMR’s case has been stopped in its tracks. “I can understand the motivation of Midwest Environmental Advocates, but in this case, when the facts came out, there was no basis for a lawsuit,” said Carl Sheeley, president of Fontarome Chemical. Sheeley said Fontarome’s violations were minor, compared to other industries in the area, and compared to the amount of water that would dilute the chemicals in Lake Michigan.

“There was no damage to the environment,” Sheeley said of his company’s violations. MMSD Water Quality Protection Manager Pete Topczewski said that MMSD would not impose penalties on the company for its past violations.

“While they always had a few violations, they were never enough for us to go after them for fines and penalties,” Topczewski said. “That would have been unnecessary enforcement.” Sheeley said he couldn’t disclose where his company was sending its discharge, but Fontarome is most likely sending it to ChemWorks Treatment Facility in the Menomonee Valley, which treats industrial waste.

ChemWorks, like Fontarome, is on MMSD’s list of non-compliant industries. Topczewski said that MMSD is monitoring ChemWorks closely to bring it back into compliance, and takes samples each week from the facility. “Centralized waste treaters [like ChemWorks] are the most difficult to regulate because of the various types of categories of waste that they do treat and they have to report,” Topczewski said.

Topczewski said that regulators such as MMSD are mindful of the pressures on area businesses to flourish while still looking out for the environmental impact of industry. He said MMSD has very stringent limits for chemical waste, not only to protect the environment, but to ensure that Milorganite, the fertilizer manufactured by MMSD, is safe.

Topczewski said the heavy-handed role of regulators as advocated by FMR is a thing of the past, and that MMSD has the cooperation and respect of area industries. “We have to remember that we’re in a climate where industry is very important to the region,” Topczewski said. “We do not want to exercise any unnecessary enforcement. What we would rather do is that if a facility is exceeding one of the parameters in their permit, then we bring them in for an enforcement conference. Typically they’ll come in with an environmental consultant, and we’ll look at their treatment system, and we help them upgrade their treatment system to bring them back into compliance.”

But Scanlon said Fontarome’s solution—and MMSD’s hands-off enforcement—amounts to sending waste from one facility to another, with no net gain for the environment and no incentive for other companies to thoroughly treat their waste.

“To let them get off scot-free just sends the absolutely wrong message to all of the other companies that are playing by the rules,” Scanlon said. In response, FMR has asked the state Department of Natural Resources to step in and force MMSD to impose penalties on Fontarome.

“I have no opinion about what they’re doing,” Topczewski said of FMR’s request. “They’re not impacting the way that we’re going about our business, because from the audits and the oversight of our regulators we have one of the premier [industrial] programs throughout the country.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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