Driggs ranks as the third worst offender in the state
Idaho’s public wastewater treatment plants are failing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, according to a recent report from the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental advocacy group.
The group’s third annual report found that 76 percent of the state’s wastewater plants were issued EPA permit violations between 2016 and 2018.
EPA permits for wastewater treatment plants that discharge into bodies of water are required by the Clean Water Act.
The Idaho Conservation League report tracks how many times Idaho sewage plants violated EPA permits by discharging an excess amount of pollutants into bodies of water.
One or more violations over the three-year period warranted a failing grade from the Idaho Conservation League.
Just 24 percent — an “abysmal” rate, according to the report — of Idaho cities received a passing grade, meaning they had no violations in the past three years.
The report attempts to show “the state is struggling, and we need to do some work to bring folks into compliance,” said Austin Walkins, the Idaho Conservation League’s senior conservation associate.
Small cities and towns had the most violations, likely a result of lack of funding for technological improvements to sewage plants.
All of the sewage plants in the top 10 for violations serve towns and cities with fewer than 2,000 residents.
“It can be tough to pay for some of these treatment upgrades, but it needs to happen,” Walkins said.
EPA violations can come with significant fines, as well. Fines levied against Idaho plants, since 2016, ranged from $2,500 to $30,000, per violation, Walkins said.
Two of the state’s top three offenders are in eastern Idaho. Inkom, a city of fewer than 1,000 people, topped the list, with 161 violations.
The city of Driggs, population 1,800, was third with 116 violations.
Idaho Falls had five violations, Rexburg had two, and Pocatello had nine.
Inkom accounted for 9 percent of the state’s total violations. According to the report, Inkom’s wastewater treatment plant had excess amounts of phosphorus and BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) pollutants, both of which can deplete oxygen from the body of water that receives the discharge.
Inkom city officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Hyrum Johnson, mayor of Driggs, said the city is aware of the EPA violations and is working closely with the federal agency to address them.
Driggs’ city-operated sewage plant is discharging ammonia well above EPA’s permit limit for that particular pollutant. According to quarterly EPA data, the plant discharged ammonia at more than 2,000 percent of permitted limits several times over the last three years. The most recent rate was 904 percent above the limit.
Ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, at high concentrations is harmful to aquatic life.
“When ammonia is present in water at high enough levels, it is difficult for aquatic organisms to sufficiently excrete the toxicant, leading to toxic buildup in internal tissues and blood, and potentially death,” an EPA web page says.
The Driggs sewage plant discharges into a small creek, Wood Creek, which feeds the Teton River, Johnson said. The creek is not a source of drinking water.
“The fish are the concern,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to hurt any human.”
The Driggs plant’s method for removing ammonia did not respond to cold weather, Johnson said, causing high levels of the pollutant since the plant opened in 2013.
While Driggs searches for a solution to the ammonia problem, it has agreed to a consent order with the EPA. The federal agency will stop issuing fines to the city of Driggs for two years. The consent order will expire in April, Johnson said.
Upgrading the facility to comply with EPA permit standards could cost $1 million, Johnson said. The sewage plant itself cost $10 million to build.
“The difficulty is in the cost of compliance,” Johnson said. “For smaller communities, the cost alone can be a real impediment.”