Western water crusader capitalizing on NY Times series

A New York Times series on the failure of federal and state officials to enforce the Clean Water Act has brought out Dr. Peter Maier, again.

Maier, a Utah engineer originally from Holland, has been waging a one-man war against the EPA since the 1980s, arguing that the regulatory agency’s test for treatment plants is too lax and allows untreated human waste, for example, to overfill and drain oxygen from the nation’s waterways.

On Monday, a Maier comment ranked first below the blockbuster New York Times water story in the Editors’ Selection view, where comments are winnowed and selected by editors. Maier also emailed news organizations immediately, explaining that his thoughts were particularly relevant in light of the findings highlighted by the Times.

His website, referenced twice in his Times comment, details his 25-year quest to replace the EPA test for sewage plants—a test he claims turns rivers into “giant urinals.”

In brief, his argument is that the Clean Water Act, as passed in 1979, requires sewage treatment plants to cut oxygen-depleting pollutants. However, because treatment plants kept failing the Clean Water Act standards, the EPA fiddled with the test several times, making it more lax. In the intervening years, all new treatment plants have been built to pass the less-exacting standards, he says. Now, he claims, the EPA doesn’t want to change the test, because even the newest plants wouldn’t pass it.

Wrote the Salt Lake City Weekly in 2003:

And that’s the rub. Treatment plants only monitor and treat what the EPA mandates, and EPA won’t raise the standards because most plants can’t meet them.

The result, says Maier, is too much nitrogenous waste in water bodies. The waste causes voracious algae plants to take over, sucking oxygen from bays, gulfs and lakes  in a phenomenon known as eutrophication.

The news accounts on Maier’s website detail a life spent in a quest to fix this problem. A 1987 High Country News article described him waking at 4 a.m. to drive far out of Salt Lake City for work. After publicly fighting the construction of three large sewage plants in Salt Lake City, he told HCN, he didn’t think he would ever get a job in the city again.

“Even though he was right, professionally, he killed himself,” said his oldest daughter.

After losing treatment plant battle in Utah, Maier decided to take the matter to federal court, suing the EPA in 1993 over its lax test. In 1995, according to the Salt Lake City Weekly, “a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 against Maier’s group. A subsequent petition to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied.”

In his 70s now, Maier is clearly still waging a web-based war, at least, against what he sees as one of the greatest failures of the Clean Water Act.

“Peter’s crusades are largely one-man stabbings at the soft underbelly of the bureaucracy,” wrote the Utah Waterline in 1983. “In a sense, he is an anchorite, reporting from his hermitage on the goings-on in the Vestry of Politics in the Cathedral of Engineering.”

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Katie Redding

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