Posted on July 10, 2012 by Charles F. Becker
“And I wonder, still I wonder, who’ll stop the rain.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival
As environmental issues go, stormwater regulation is not a high priority for many environmental practitioners. Maybe it should be, because EPA seems to be obsessed by it. In the last year, among other things, EPA has:
• Issued a new construction general permit to regulate stormwater discharges (and got involved in litigation that forced it to withdraw the regulations regarding a numeric effluent limit);
• Developed a template designed to help builders write their stormwater control plans;
• Filed a Notice of Intent to revise the stormwater regulations to exempt discharges from logging roads; and
• Created an action plan to address stormwater runoff in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (over some objection).
On the litigation front, cases involving stormwater compliance have been popular. Of the five environmental cases from the Ninth Circuit that sought (and have been granted) review by the U.S. Supreme Court for the next term, three of them relate to stormwater regulation.
For residential and commercial developers, stormwater regulations have been expensive to address, but 20 years of practice have allowed many of them to adapt to the existing requirements. EPA’s attempt to introduce numeric effluent limits in the new permit caused a few moments of panic until EPA was forced to withdraw them.
However, a change was made in the permit that has gone unnoticed and has the potential to impact the cost of construction. The new requirements for stormwater discharges at construction sites can be found at 40 C.F.R. Part 450. At Section 450.21, there are requirements relating to “effluent limitations reflecting the best available practicable technology available.” Buried in this section is a fairly innocuous provision that simply requires the developer and builder to, “unless infeasible, preserve topsoil.”
The reason to preserve topsoil at construction sites is two-fold. First, it has more organic material than denser soils so it allows faster growth of vegetation which, in turn, works to slow down the runoff of stormwater from a site. Second, it acts like a sponge to soak up the rain before it is allowed to run into a gully or ditch and, eventually, to a stream or river. For development of a construction site, however, topsoil has a serious drawback – it’s in the way. Topsoil does not provide a solid enough base for roads or buildings and, therefore, the developer frequently finds it necessary to scrape the property of all topsoil before installing any streets, driveways or permanent structures.
While I cannot speak to the rest of the country, in the Midwest, this typically means that the topsoil is removed and is often not replaced, but is used for berms around the site. Respreading it is too costly and would usually affect the final grade of the development. Rather, when it comes time to put vegetative cover on the open areas, sod (with its own layer of topsoil) is used. The new permit requirement will change that practice. The definitional problem that will need to be addressed by every state is the meaning of “preserve” as used in the permit.
Perhaps the term means that areas of a development that are not going to have a structure or street should not have the topsoil removed. As a practical matter, that would be impossible. Virtually every development site of any size requires grading to even the slopes and to account for drainage. The term might mean that whatever topsoil was in existence prior to the disturbance of the site, would need to be returned to the site. As a practical matter, this would be difficult to do. Some areas of a site might have a few inches of topsoil, while other areas might have several feet. Grading in anticipation of replacing the topsoil with what was preexisting would, at least arguably, be infeasible.
As the NPDES Permit for each state comes up for renewal, the issue of how to comply with this requirement will need to be addressed. The permits could simply incorporate the language into the terms of the revised permit, but this would provide virtually no guidance to developers or, more importantly, to the MS4 cities that will be called upon to enforce the requirement.
In Iowa, the General Permit for Construction Sites will need to be updated on October 1, 2012. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has spent considerable time pondering this problem and has come up with a solution. The IDNR has decided to create, in essence, a safe harbor for compliance. The proposed rule provides that disturbed areas that will not have streets, driveways or structures located on them will require a minimum of four inches of topsoil (which can include the topsoil found in the sod). This amount of topsoil fits well with other building requirements and is a significant sponge for purposes of soaking up rainwater. There is an exception to the four inch requirement for those sites which did not have four inches of topsoil prior to disturbance. If a developer believes that the site has less than four inches of topsoil, he/she can complete a soil survey prior to disturbing any soils and, if the topsoil is less than four inches at any given location, the developer is only required to return that amount of topsoil at the conclusion of the development.
The Iowa solution is far from ideal. While it has the advantage of providing certainty, it does so at what may be a very steep cost. Estimates have not yet been made on the additional cost of returning topsoil to each lot, but there will certainly be added expenses that will add to home ownership costs at a time that the industry needs to be finding ways to reduce costs. On the other hand, it is preferable to an undefined requirement that a developer “preserve topsoil unless infeasible,” which simply invites litigation.
Over the course of the next twenty-four to thirty-six months, virtually every state will need to address this issue. If EPA chooses to make stormwater compliance a priority, and there is every indication that it will, the new permits will result in a significant change in the way developments are built and priced. Adding these costs to help reduce what amounts to less than 1% of the surface water contamination problem is questionable, but it’s here. Since we’re not going to stop the rain, or the EPA, I would suggest that we need to help our state regulatory agencies come up with a reasonable, and workable, solution.