Water Pollution

Information on the Use of Alternative Wastewater Treatment Systems Gao ID: RCED-94-109 September 26, 1994

The costs of treating the nation's wastewater are huge and rapidly rising. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the cost of municipalities' unmet needs for wastewater treatment facilities rose about $17.7 billion from 1988 to 1992 and totaled $108 billion in 1992. This report examines whether the wastewater treatment costs could be reduced through the use of alternative treatment systems. GAO discusses (1) cost-effective alternatives to conventional systems for collecting and treating wastewater, (2) barriers limiting the use of these alternatives, and (3) how EPA is addressing the development of future technologies.

GAO found that: (1) alternative systems for collecting and treating wastewater have the potential to reduce costs significantly; (2) alternative treatment systems can help many communities that cannot afford conventional treatment systems meet their wastewater treatment needs; (3) alternative treatment systems include collection systems that use smaller pipes and are buried at shallower depths than conventional sewer systems and natural treatment systems that use soil, vegetation, and aquatic environments as treatment or disposal mediums; (4) natural treatment systems employ few mechanical parts, use little energy, and have lower construction, operation, and maintenance costs than conventional treatment systems; (5) barriers to the use of alternative systems include the lack of knowledge about their applicability, performance, and cost, private-sector financial disincentives, and restrictive state and local codes and regulations; (6) hesitancy about using available alternative systems has discouraged private-sector investment in future cost-effective technology; (7) although EPA funding for wastewater treatment research has dropped significantly over the past 15 years, EPA is considering spending $1 million to implement three projects that would provide information on alternative systems and attempt to reduce the barriers to their use; and (8) in the last 2 years, EPA has taken steps to better promote alternative technology innovations, invest in promising technologies, and accelerate the use of alternative technologies.

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