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What is the protocol for handling water waste? It depends on the scale of the treatment facility, the nature of the effluent, and the volume of the water produced. It’s a well-known water waste fact that untreated effluent is damaging, so capable treatment facilities and procedures are vital.

In this article, we’ll examine the best way to handle wastewater at different scales and volumes – from small and medium-sized enterprises to full-scale municipalities.


Industries often use the same treatment infrastructure as residential communities do. However, industries are more closely regulated than residential wastewater producers, and many will have their own smaller-scale wastewater treatment infrastructure installed on-site.

Small to Medium Sized Enterprises

All businesses produce wastewater – whether from the water used by staff members and visitors on site, stormwater runoff from infrastructure, or industrial processes themselves. For smaller facilities, however, the volume of wastewater from all sources typically remains low. As a result, wastewater can be passed into local and municipal treatment facilities.

The EPA requires that local and municipal facilities pre-treat the water they receive as waste from industrial and residential properties, including the small and medium-sized enterprises discussed above. This means the onus is on the local and municipal treatment facilities themselves to ensure pollutants are not permitted to enter the local ecosystem or water table.

However, small and medium-sized enterprises will still need to ensure that wastewater is properly handled and transmitted through designated channels to treatment infrastructure. This means taking steps to reduce chemical spillages or stormwater overflow that might be transferred directly to the local water table.

Large Scale Industrial Facilities

The larger the scale of the industrial facility, the larger the wastewater volume it produces – this is a slightly generalized wastewater fact, but it holds true in most cases. As a result, the owners of major industrial infrastructure may be held responsible for the excessive discharge of wastewater or the release of pollutants into municipal treatment systems. Under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), industries must have a permit when they use a publicly owned treatment works (POTW).

This permit imposes limits on effluent discharge. Limits are based on the clean water technology available to industrial operations and the capabilities and capacities of local POTWs. In other words, industries can release a certain amount of wastewater into municipal and publicly-owned systems but must handle excess wastewater on-site.

Specially Controlled Industries

Certain industries produce harmful pollutants that are transmitted to the local water table via wastewater effluent. These industries include mining, oil and gas operations, and agriculture. While specific guidelines control the industries themselves, the situation is largely the same across all these categories – wastewater must be pre-treated, and site owners must take steps to reduce the volume and toxicity of the effluent they produce. What is the threshold for acceptable water waste discharge? Several factors are at play here, and businesses will need to pay attention to maximum limits in their industry and location.


Depending on the type of mining taking place, mining operations will need a specific type of NPDES permit. Metallic ore extraction facilities must meet the EPA’s Hardrock Mining Framework. Mineral Mining and Processing Federal Effluent Guidelines bind non-metal mining and processing organizations. Likewise, coal mining operations must meet Coal Mining Federal Effluent Limitations Guidelines and local regulations specific to key mining areas, such as in the Appalachian Mountains region.

Abandoned mine sites also produce effluent via stormwater, and site owners will still be responsible for this even if the mine is not operational.

Oil and Gas

Oil and gas operations must meet specific regulations and guidelines according to the type of operation taking place. Shale gas extraction, for example, is governed by its own state and federal regulations, as is hydraulic fracturing. Sites that produce perfluoroalkyls and polyfluoroalkyls (PFAS) will be subject to NPDES permit requirements and pre-treatment audits.


Agricultural operations, such as crop growing and animal feeding, can produce their own type of wastewater pollution. This can be particularly harmful to nearby ecosystems, either killing indigenous organisms or upsetting the natural balance through over-fertilization. Agricultural effluent is overseen by specific federal EPA guidelines and those implemented at the state level.

Communities and Population Centers

Industries tend to utilize a mixture of wastewater treatment infrastructure, relying on POTWs and on-site treatment facilities. On the other hand, communities tend to rely exclusively on POTWs, although these POTWs are implemented differently.

Small Towns and Conurbations

Decentralized wastewater treatment systems may be the best option in small towns and conurbations. This involves treating sewage and wastewater close to the source – i.e., in a location near the residential or commercial property that produces it.

Smaller communities may be spread out, making logistics and transporting wastewater to a centralized location difficult. Many communities may lack the resources and funds to operate a centralized system, and decentralized treatment networks can ease the strain. Decentralized treatment may involve a small community facility that handles wastewater away from larger municipal systems, or it could even involve septic tanks and treatment infrastructure attached to individual properties in some cases.

The EPA estimates that around a quarter of American households are served either by individual property infrastructure or by a small community system.


Centralized systems are most commonly deployed in larger municipalities. These are areas where individual or low-level decentralized systems are not feasible because of higher population densities and significant infrastructural build-up. Areas like this are also typically arranged around a centralized nucleus rather than being spread out across larger areas, which makes transferring wastewater to a single facility much easier.

These centralized systems are the most common form of wastewater disposal for residential communities around the United States. Across the country, 16,000 of these large-scale wastewater handling facilities serve around 75% of the total population.

Handling Wastewater the Right Way

The polluting potential of effluent may be a well-known water waste fact, but industries mustn’t get complacent. By using pre-treatment infrastructure and the right sort of product, industries can take steps to reduce the volume and toxicity of their effluent, remaining compliant with all relevant regulations. Take a look at Chemtech’s wastewater treatment product range and find the solutions you need, or reach out to our team to discover more.