Dec 07, 2016

Reliable Records in Puerto Rico

Using web-based tools for efficient permit data management

The implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s NPDES MS4 permits represents a real challenge to the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Serious industrial, economic and tax-related transformations have left the archipelago of Puerto Rico with economic issues in most of its municipalities. These issues, coupled with newer, more stringent environmental laws and regulations at the federal level, require municipalities in the territory to prioritize where to invest their limited funding for the improvement of their jurisdictions’ environmental quality. Additionally, the intrinsic natural, economic and social characteristics of this U.S. territory in the Caribbean make enforcement of the NPDES MS4 program challenging.

Changing Mind-Set

The allocation of human and economic resources to comply with the regulations requires new approaches and strategies, like the use of web-based tools for more efficient use of time and financial accountability. The use of new tools, such as a web-based permit manager, provides municipalities with the capability to efficiently address environmental issues. The flexibility offered by new technology has been effective in helping municipalities establish a robust data management strategy aimed at implementing NPDES MS4 permits.

Polluted storm water runoff often is transported to MS4s and ultimately discharged into local rivers and streams without treatment. Common pollutants include oil and grease from roadways, pesticides from lawns, sediment from construction sites, greywater, and illegal discharges from septic systems. In 1990, the U.S. promulgated rules establishing Phase I of the NPDES program, which requires MS4s to implement strategies to control polluted discharges. The Stormwater Phase II Rule extended coverage of the NPDES storm water program to the small MS4s on the mainland and in the territory of Puerto Rico.

Located approximately 900 miles south of Miami, Puerto Rico is the only U.S. territory required to comply with the NPDES MS4 permit. The main island is roughly the size of Connecticut, sharing legal framework with both state and federal laws to address many important issues like air, water, solid waste and natural resources management. However, this unique relationship also creates misunderstandings, mostly related to the enforcement of the regulations. In Puerto Rico, 40 municipalities have to comply with the Phase II Rule and minimum control measures like any other state in the U.S. The serious economic situation forces local governments and their contractors to look for new ways to comply with these regulations.

Implementing Permits

Since 2009, EcoStahlia Environmental Consultants has helped municipalities in Puerto Rico implement NPDES MS4 permits.

For several years, the company worked with limited field technology. In 2015, EcoStahlia started looking for an effective way to obtain and organize field data during monthly inspections.

The company began using MS4Web, a web-driven platform to simplify its record keeping during inspections. It found that technology helps to centralize efforts by:

  • Making record keeping easier; 
  • Allowing availability of built-in report templates;
  • Saving time and resources;
  • Providing secure data storage;
  • Providing access to the public;
  • Offering real-time feeding and storage; and
  • Allowing the sharing of data and information with other parties.

The use of technology is critical to advance the implementation of any compliance program. If the software or equipment is user-friendly, then it can be effective in helping municipalities strengthen their local enforcement ordinances, which is a key element for the success of the NPDES MS4 program. Since 2015, EcoStahlia has identified and categorized more than 1,000 illegal discharges in 12 municipalities in Puerto Rico.

Every municipality using the web-based tool is now focusing resources on effectively addressing the growing problem of illegal discharges.

The system allows users to pinpoint a discharge and identify the source with the existing conditions on site, eliminating the need to write a report at the desk. Users just extract the PDF report and send.

The versatile web-based tool works with both Apple and Android platforms. Two people can cover larger areas during illicit discharge detection and elimination by using two smartphones or tablets at the same time. This tool allows EcoStahlia to organize lectures, trainings, and seminars about current regulations for employees. The use of technology saves municipalities money, while providing the regulator with better access to data during audits. The use of MS4Web has proven to be an efficient compliance tracking system, and has provided local municipalities with an economic alternative to comply with a complex regulatory program like the NPDES MS4. 

About the author

Javier Vélez-Arocho is partner of EcoStahlia Environmental Consultants. Vélez-Arocho can be reached at [email protected] or 787.600.5250.

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