Rules Aim to Protect Drinking Water from Vehicle Waste

Denver, CO - Drinking water and gasoline don't mix. At least, they shouldn't. In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took action to stop disposal of motor vehicle wastes in ways that threaten water supplies.

Wastes from floor drains or sinks in shops that service cars, trucks, buses, construction and farm machinery are sometimes sent to septic tanks and leach fields or "dry wells." Dry wells are culvert-like concrete tubes set vertically into holes dug for the purpose. The practice is common in rural areas not served by sewer lines.

"These wastes contain some nasty chemicals," said EPA's Douglas Minter in Denver. "We get fuels, oil, solvents, heavy metals...contaminants that can cause cancer or other illnesses. These are not the kinds of things we want in drinking water," Mr. Minter said.

Mr. Minter said there's general agreement that this is a bad practice. The controversy comes over how— and even where— to end it. In a December 1999 rule, EPA prohibited new "motor-vehicle waste disposal wells" beginning in 2000. The action addresses existing wells and taps them for closure or stringent permits by 2007. Some could be closed much sooner if states specify underground water supplies that are especially vulnerable to contamination.

People now sending such wastes to septic tanks or dry wells will have to connect to city sewers, collect wastes in holding tanks for periodic trips to treatment plants or operate as a "dry shop." Dry shops seal closed their floor drains and clean up spills with dry absorbent rather than with water.

Owners could apply for permits to keep wells open but would have to meet stringent requirements. They would have to sample and analyze their waste streams four times per year. Wastes could not contain contaminants at levels any higher than those allowed in drinking water.

The rules will apply where EPA's Denver office is responsible for "underground injection control (UIC)" provisions of the nation's Safe Drinking Water Act. That includes Colorado, Montana, South Dakota and on Indian lands in Utah, Wyoming and North Dakota. In the latter three, State agencies handle UIC except on Indian lands. Nationally, Mr. Minter said, almost all UIC programs expect to close motor-vehicle waste disposal wells in the next few years.

EPA's decision and supporting documents, including public comments are available for review at EPA's Denver offices. The full Federal Register notice is available on the Internet at www.epa.gov/fedrgstr.