STATEMENT OF PERFECTO OCASIO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
PUERTO RICO AQUEDUCT AND SEWER AUTHORITY
before the
COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
UNITED STATES SENATE
on THE COASTAL POLLUTION REDUCTION ACT, H.R. 2207
JULY 9, 1998

Mr. Chairman, my name is Perfecto Ocasio. I am the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority ("PRASA"), the public corporation that serves almost all of the 3.8 million American citizens in Puerto Rico with potable water and wastewater services. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to comment on the need for this legislation, which would benefit the environment and the economy of Puerto Rico.

I would first like to present to the Committee a letter, from Governor Pedro Rossello, urging quick Senate action on H.R. 2207, as a matter of urgent importance to the people of Puerto Rico.

BACKGROUND

Under section 301(h) of the 1977 Clean Water Act, coastal communities, including islands, were permitted an opportunity to apply for an alternative to the requirements of secondary treatment for ocean discharges that met stringent environmental equivalency requirements. All applications were required initially to be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") by December 31, 1982. PRASA submitted seven applications. Six were tentatively approved; only one -- the Mayaguez treatment plant outfall -- was denied, finally in 1994, because of the location of the outfall in the sensitive coral environment of Mayaguez Bay.

CONSENT DECREE ALTERNATIVES

H.R. 2207, which was passed by the House last October, would allow Puerto Rico to apply to the EPA for authority under section 301(h) of the Clean Water Act to construct a new, state-of-the-art deep ocean outfall at a location that avoids this coral environment. This would be an alternative to secondary treatment at the current outfall location in Mayaguez Bay. This option is specifically embodied in a recent Consent Decree between the EPA and PRASA, which resolves a 15-year-old legal dispute. The Consent Decree, supported by EPA and PRASA, requires PRASA to meet a detailed schedule for the construction of facilities necessary to achieve compliance with all of the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

But it provides two alternatives. One is the construction of a traditional secondary treatment plant, at high cost and energy consumption, which will continue to discharge effluents into Mayaguez Bay. The second alternative, illustrated in the accompanying chart, is the construction of a deep water ocean outfall, sending primary treated effluent several miles offshore into deep ocean currents, thus relieving stress on the Bay and its sensitive coral ecosystems. The deep water outfall could be less expensive to build and much less expensive to operate than a secondary treatment plant. EPA would determine whether the deep ocean outfall meets all Clean Water Act standards. However, because of the urgent need for a solution, the Consent Decree permits EPA consideration of the deep ocean outfall alternative only if Congress authorizes this approach by August 1, 1998.

BENEFITS OF THE LEGISLATION

This legislation provides Puerto Rico the same opportunity that Congress has given other coastal communities in unique situations to implement section 301(h). The bill does not in any way change any applicable standards of the Clean Water Act. Without authority to submit a waiver application to the EPA, PRASA may be required to spend many millions of dollars for a secondary treatment plant that will have no beneficial effect on the stressed marine environment of Mayaguez Bay. These funds could be used for the renovation and upgrade of Puerto Rico's deteriorating water facilities infrastructure and other water supply, treatment and wastewater projects urgently needed in Puerto Rico.

H.R. 2207 makes the following findings:

1. The existing discharge from the Mayaguez publicly owned treatment works is to the stressed waters of Mayaguez Bay, an area containing severely degraded coral reefs, and relocation of that discharge to unstressed ocean waters could benefit the marine environment;

2. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act should, consistent with the environmental goals of the Act, be administered with sufficient flexibility to take into consideration the unique characteristics of Mayaguez Bay; and

3. Scientific evidence suggests that some deep ocean areas off the coastline of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, might be able to receive a less-than-secondary sewage discharge while still maintaining healthy and diverse marine life.

CORAL REEF PROTECTION

Just last month the President issued an Executive Order on Coral Reef Protection. The legislation also provides Congress and the EPA with an early opportunity to further the goals of this initiative. That Order, which is designed to protect and preserve coral reef ecosystems, requires all Federal agencies to use their authorities to reduce impacts on affected environments from pollution and sedimentation. H.R. 2207 will allow EPA the opportunity to determine whether a deep ocean outfall can protect Mayaguez Bay. Without this bill, EPA and PRASA have no options -- except an inordinately expensive one -- a course of action that would continue pollution and sedimentation of the coral ecosystem. This bill does not authorize construction of a deep ocean outfall, it will simply allow us to conclude the necessary studies and complete an application for EPA's review.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT

PRASA is already proceeding to ensure a thorough environmental review of all options. Under Law Number 9, Puerto Rico's local equivalent to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), PRASA and the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB) are preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). A draft EIS was completed in April recommending a deep ocean outfall as environmentally preferable. A copy of the EIS is being submitted to the Committee.

The entire EIS record will be available to EPA as it considers the strict standards of section 301(h).

CONGRESSIONAL PRECEDENTS

There are precedents for such a limited amendment to section 301(h). The Municipal Wastewater Treatment Construction Grant Amendments of 1981 included a provision that specifically permitted the city of Avalon, California to file. The 1981 provision concluded: "failure to broaden eligibility risks requiring treatment for treatment's sake, involving the expenditure of funds which could be better used to achieve additional water quality benefits elsewhere. This provision does not grant variances. It simply allows variances to be sought with the burden on the applicant to make his case on environmental grounds."

The Water Quality Act of 1987 also included a specific provision for the Irvine Ranch Water District, a California public agency, that permitted the District to file for a section 301(h) waiver. More recently, in 1994 Congress passed H.R. 5176, which allowed the city of San Diego to apply for a waiver under section 301(h) within 180 days of enactment. This action precisely parallels the provision here.

We urge you to act quickly. A legislative solution must be in place before August 1, 1998. This will allow us to put to rest years of litigation and focus our energies and capital resources on implementing an environmentally sound solution for Mayaguez and other urgent priorities.

Thank you for your time and consideration on this important issue for Puerto Rico.