EPA’s RDA Math: 3 + 9 ≠ 1

Posted on June 20, 2014 by David Van Slyke

In a surprising turn of events, on March 12, 2014 EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 each simultaneously but separately responded, and each in a somewhat different way, to three virtually identical NGO petitions asking those Regions to use their Clean Water Act (“CWA”) Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require that stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial and institutional (“CII”) sites be permitted under CWA Section 402.  The three petitions were filed in July 2013 by several different and somewhat overlapping consortia of environmental organizations.

The three Regions’ responses were all signed by their respective Regional administrators, each was worded differently, and each included a somewhat similar -- yet somewhat different --explanatory enclosure that detailed the basis of each respective Region’s response.

EPA Region 3’s response is a flat out denial of the petition, citing existing tools and programs already in place to address stormwater pollution (e.g., MS4 permits, TMDL implementation and strong state programs).  The enclosure with the Regional Administrator’s letter denying the petition also states that “Region III declines to begin a process for categorical designation of discharges from CII sites to impaired waters since … the data supplied by the Petitioners to support the exercise of RDA is insufficient.”  The enclosure does note that if the existing programs ultimately do not meet their objectives, alternate tools, including RDA, will need to be considered.

Similarly, EPA Region 9’s response “declines to make a Region-wide designation of the sources” in the petition specific to Region 9.  That response also concludes in the enclosure that “we currently have insufficient information to support a Region-wide designation” of the CII sites specified in the petition, “that effective programs are already in place that address the majority of the sites identified in the petition,” and that the Region will keep designation in their toolbag as they “continue to evaluate currently unregulated sources of stormwater runoff.”

However, Region 1’s response states that it “is neither granting the petition … nor is it denying the petition.”  Instead, the Region is going to evaluate individual watersheds in its six states to look at the nature and extent of impairment caused by stormwater, and then “to determine whether and the extent to which exercise of RDA is appropriate.”

Given the identical language in certain portions of all three of the Regional response enclosures (e.g., Statutory and Regulatory Background; Petition Review Criteria), it is clear that EPA Headquarters was in the thick of the discussions regarding the responses to these three RDA petitions.  However, the apparent autonomy afforded each Region in determining how to deal with the issue is remarkable, and the discussions ultimately may have centered (as they often do at EPA HQ) on resource allocations nationally and within each Region. 

The responses of Regions 3 and 9 imply that their current respective paths, with time, will get results without diverting resources.  EPA Region 1 appears to more fully embrace RDA as a near-term viable tool to more aggressively control stormwater runoff from CII sites.  Apparently, the New England regulators’ successful experience with the Long Creek Watershed RDA and their efforts relative to the RDA process for the Charles River has only whetted their appetite for further candidate areas at which to employ this model to address impaired stormwater. 

Whether the NGOs will seek judicial relief from the denial of their Petitions, whether the states in the USA’s upper right hand corner will be supportive of EPA New England’s continued utilization of this tool, as well as how this issue ultimately will be played by EPA HQ, is fuzzy math.

Retroactive Stormwater Permitting – Coming to a Parking Lot Near You?

Posted on September 18, 2013 by David Van Slyke

On July 10, 2013, several different consortia of environmental organizations simultaneously filed petitions with three EPA Regional Offices asking the respective Regional Administrators to make determinations under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) that unpermitted stormwater discharges from impervious surfaces at existing commercial, industrial, and institutional sites be required to obtain stormwater permits and to conduct remedial actions.  The three petitions (Region 1, Region 3, Region 9), jointly filed by American Rivers, Conservation Law Foundation (“CLF”) and Natural Resources Defense Council (along with different regional NGOs on each petition), ask EPA to use its CWA Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require property owners in EPA Regions 1, 3 and 9 to capture and treat their stormwater runoff, which the petitioners allege is impairing waterbodies in those parts of the U.S.

Currently, in the absence of residual designation, only new construction projects, industrial sites falling within certain limited categories, and municipal stormwater sewer systems are required to obtain stormwater permits and manage stormwater runoff.  The Petitioners allege that stormwater discharged from impervious surfaces on commercial, industrial, and institutional sites are significant sources of pollutants – specifically, metals (lead, copper and zinc), sediments, phosphorus, nitrogen, and oxygen-demanding compounds that cause water body impairments – and therefore should be regulated.   

In 2008, CLF successfully petitioned EPA to use RDA to require stormwater discharge permits for existing impervious surfaces in an urban/mall area near Portland, Maine.  Property owners with an acre of more of impervious surface in that watershed are now required to control their stormwater runoff either on an individual basis (by retrofitting their property to control pollutants in runoff) or by obtaining coverage under a general permit and paying an annual fee per acre of impervious cover.  A similar NGO petition was granted by EPA Region I with regard to limited areas within the Charles River watershed near Boston.

The current petitions represent an effort to force expansion of EPA stormwater runoff control regulation in New England, the Mid-Atlantic States and California/Nevada/Arizona.  The petitioners recommend remedial actions such as conservation of natural areas, reducing hard surface cover, and retrofitting urban areas with features that detain stormwater runoff and treat pollutants in stormwater. 

EPA has 90 days to act on the petition, although action within this time frame is doubtful given the scope of the requests and the pace at which EPA has acted upon other much more limited RDA petitions.  With the very recent U.S. District Court decision in American Farm Bureau v. EPA upholding the Agency’s Chesapeake Bay TMDL for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, however, EPA may feel somewhat more emboldened to embrace these broad-reaching petitions.  To date, however, the Agency has been mum regarding the petitions.

New Hampshire's Great Bay, Nitrogen, and the Limits of Technology

Posted on December 26, 2012 by Gregory H. Smith

As the Clean Water Act celebrates its 40th anniversary, it has ignited a controversy in New Hampshire with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.  In the law’s early days,  publicly owned treatment works (“POTWs”), mandated and financed in large part with federal funds, were viewed as the “good guys” in the national effort to restore quality in receiving water bodies into which raw sewage was being discharged.  That view of POTWs seems to have changed in New Hampshire, at least as relates to the State’s largest saltwater estuary; the Great Bay.  Faced with the potential need to finance significant POTW upgrades or reconstruction, New Hampshire POTWs are challenging EPA’s permitting decisions in the courts, through administrative channels and in the press.

As we know, POTWs are regulated through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permits that monitor and control a variety of effluent criteria.  Interestingly, however, New Hampshire was and remains one of the few states that has not obtained authority to issue new and renewed NPDES permits.  Because of this status as a non-delegated state, dischargers in New Hampshire with expiring permits must apply to the federal government for renewal.  As environmental regulation has progressed, however, and as federal funds have diminished or disappeared, POTWs and the towns and sewer districts that operate them have found themselves opposed to the EPA’s efforts to impose stricter standards  to address pollutants that were not of primary concern when the POTWs were constructed and initially permitted.

In New Hampshire, this is seen vividly in NPDES renewal efforts EPA is undertaking for several POTWs that discharge under expired and expiring permits, directly or indirectly, into the Great Bay estuary located on the State’s coast.  Once a rich habitat for oysters, eel grass and other sea life, Great Bay is now stressed by a variety of factors including both point and non-point discharges as well as other environmental factors.   At the heart of the controversy  in New Hampshire is EPA’s intention to reduce effluent limitations for nitrogen to as low as three parts per million (the limits of technology) in order to ameliorate nitrogen related problems in Great Bay.  From the municipalities and POTWs perspective, the costs to comply with these new lower limits are exorbitant.  One widely cited study estimates that, for the Great Bay estuary POTWs to comply with the new nitrogen limit, it will cost in excess of one half billion dollars in capital,operation and maintenance expenses.  Those costs will, of course, be passed along to a relatively small population of ratepayers. 

A coalition of communities with affected POTWs has joined forces in response, proposing “adaptive management programs” combining somewhat lower discharge limits with comprehensive non-point controls aimed together at achieving EPA’s stated goals.  It is unclear at this time whether those efforts will be successful.  The coalition communities certainly have in mind the experiences in Chesapeake Bay, or closer to home in neighboring and similarly non-delegated Massachusetts, where EPA is using its  Residual Designation Authority (“RDA”) to require permits in the Charles River watershed.  EPA has been public with its view that the Charles River RDA program may become a model for watersheds elsewhere in New England and nationwide.  It is thought that an adaptive management program as proposed by New Hampshire’s coalition communities would obviate the need to utilize RDA for Great Bay, but that issue remains to be addressed in the future.