Category Archives: Water

Discussion of water pollution, water supply and the law of water rights

The Legislative Response to GenX

September 10, 2017. At the end of its most recent one-week session, the N.C. General Assembly added GenX  provisions to an existing bill,  House Bill 56  (Amend Environmental Laws),  and passed the bill with little discussion.  Section 20 of H 56:

  1. Amends the state budget to give $185,000 to Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA) — $100,000 to study water treatment methods to remove GenX from the water supply and $85,000 for ongoing monitoring of water withdrawn from the Cape Fear River.
  2. Allocates $250,000 to UNC-Wilmington to “identify and quantify GenX and measure the concentration of the chemicals in the sediments of the Cape Fear River, the extent to which the chemical biodegrades over time or bioaccumulates within local ecosystems, and what risk the contaminant poses to human health”. The provision requires a final report from these studies by April 1, 2018.
  3. Directs UNC-Chapel Hill to develop a proposal to (i) identify and acquire digital environmental monitoring and natural resource data and digitize analog data;  (ii)  create an online, searchable public database of  water quality permits, permit applications, and supporting documents; and (iii)  create a system for electronic filing of permit applications. The provision also directs UNC-CH to study the feasibility of housing the database at UNC rather than with the permitting agencies in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
  4. Requires DEQ to report back to the legislature if the department has not issued a Notice of Violation to any person or company for discharge of GenX into the Cape Fear River by
    September 8.

The bill does not allocate any additional funding to either DEQ or the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Governor Cooper had requested $2.5 million for the two departments to provide more resources for water quality monitoring; inspection of permitted facilities; permitting (and particularly elimination of the backlog in permit renewals); and development of health advisories for unregulated contaminants. Instead, DEQ  faces a $1.8 million budget reduction for 2017-2018, continuing a trend of repeated cuts to the department’s budget over the last 10 years. (See an earlier blogpost for the effect of those budget reductions.)

How will House Bill 56 affect efforts to address GenX?  The bill supports efforts by Cape Fear Public Utility Authority to identify treatment systems capable of removing GenX  from the water; increase water quality monitoring; and learn more about the impact of  GenX. Much of the funding would offset the cost of efforts already underway by CFPUA.

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority had begun pilot testing use of granular activated carbon and ion exchange systems to remove  GenX from the water several weeks before. The $100,000 appropriation to study water treatment alternatives could reimburse CFPUA for past and future expenses incurred in the pilot testing. The funding would not be sufficient to actually upgrade water treatment in the water systems affected by  GenX contamination. 

Cape Fear Public Utility Authority had also entered into a one-year  contract  with UNC-Wilmington for just under $65,000  to analyze raw water and treated water samples  for additional perflourinated compounds  and to advise the utility on water treatment. House Bill 56 does not specifically describe the intent of the $85,000 appropriation for water supply monitoring, but the funds could cover the existing CFPUA/UNC-W contract. (The water quality monitoring would supplement, but not replace,  monitoring done by the Department of Environmental Quality.)

The $250,000 in funding directed to UNC-Wilmington to study GenX  would support new research and could generate important information about persistence of GenX in the environment and public health risk. The 6-month timeframe for the study, however, allows only  a very short  time to gather data and reach conclusions.

The UNC-Chapel Hill feasibility study for a digitized public database of water quality permit information would be the first step in a very long term project.   Creating a permitting database outside the permitting agency will raise a number of  legal, practical, policy and funding issues:  how to protect confidential information in permit applications (such as trade secrets);  cost of digitizing analog data and creating a new database; and the complications of maintaining  a database (or databases) to meet the very different needs of permit writers and the public.  Whatever the outcome of the study, the benefits of increased public access to permitting databases would likely be far in the future and require funding not provided in House Bill 56. [Note: Currently, anything in the permit file that is not protected by state confidentiality laws can be obtained through a public records request.]

What has been left undone?  None of the funding in the bill would go toward keeping GenX and other unregulated contaminants out of the Cape Fear River and other water supply sources. Only state and federal regulators can adopt water quality standards for the Cape Fear River and set permit limits for the discharge of GenX and other emerging contaminants to the river; local water systems do not have that power.

The bill does not address the lack of resources in DEQ and DHHS to evaluate the health and environmental risk of compounds like GenX before contamination of a water supply causes a crisis. GenX issue is only the most recent of several controversies over unregulated contaminants in North Carolina water supplies. Just within the last four years, the state has faced similar concerns about hexavalent chromium in drinking water wells and 1,4 dioxane in the Haw River. In each instance, state agencies had to develop guidance on safe levels of the contaminant in the absence of a clear federal standard and decide how to use the risk analysis in state permitting and enforcement decisions.

The weakness of the GenX response in House Bill 56 is that it reacts to water supply contamination without taking steps to prevent it. Once a contaminant has entered a water supply source, water systems — and their customers — shoulder the financial burden of using technology to reduce contamination to safe levels through water treatment. The bill also focuses narrowly on GenX rather than the broader problem of emerging contaminants affecting state water supplies. Nothing in the bill strengthens the state’s ability to detect other emerging contaminants in water supply sources; enforce water quality permit conditions; or assess health and environmental risk.

Next steps. As of today, the Governor had not yet signed or vetoed House Bill 56; the Governor’s decision could be affected by any number of provisions in the bill beyond those responding to GenX.  DEQ has taken an enforcement action against Chemours based on both discharge to GenX to the Cape Fear River and detection of GenX in groundwater on the site. (More about the enforcement action in the next blogpost.)

The Laws in the Background of the GenX Issue

August 21, 2017.  In  June, residents of southeastern North Carolina learned of a previously unknown contaminant in the Cape Fear River;  a study undertaken by an N.C. State University researcher documented the presence of the perflourinated compound  known as “GenX” in a report published in December 2016. The river provides drinking water for Wilmington-New Hanover County and other water systems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began studying the effects of perfluorinated compounds used in firefighting foam, water repellants, Teflon, and other products more than fifteen years ago.  EPA worked with chemical companies to phase-out the two compounds most commonly used, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), because of concerns about persistence in the environment and human health risk.  In 2000, 3M Corporation announced a phaseout of PFOS. Under a 2006 agreement with EPA, eight companies committed to phase out PFOA by 2015. In 2009, Dupont began manufacturing GenX,  a chemically distinct perflourinated compound,  at its Fayetteville plant as a replacement for PFOA. (The Chemours Company, a Dupont spin-off, now operates the Fayetteville plant.)

The discovery of an unregulated chemical with uncertain health and environmental risks in a water supply source created a high level of concern in the affected communities. It has also drawn attention to gaps in the safety net of federal environmental regulations with implications for all unregulated contaminants in water supplies.  In many ways, the GenX controversy parallels the earlier controversy in North Carolina over hexavalent chromium (a contaminant associated with coal ash) in drinking water wells. In each case, the absence of a federal standard —  or EPA’s failure to update a standard based on current science —  left the state struggling to evaluate health risk and develop an appropriate regulatory standard.

A number of news organizations have provided detailed coverage of the GenX controversy and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority posts key documents and monitoring results online . This post will focus on the key federal laws involved and the  gaps in those laws that the state may need to fill. Although I will use the GenX issue as an example, this blogpost should not be interpreted as an assessment of legal claims or liabilities associated GenX contamination in the Cape Fear River.

Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). EPA regulates manufacture and importation of chemicals under the  Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. Two of the key requirements of the law:

♦ Section 5 requires manufacturers to give  EPA notice before manufacturing a new chemical. (EPA maintains a Toxic Substances Inventory of previously approved chemicals.)  Based on review of information submitted with the notice, EPA may  find the new chemical is “not likely to represent an unreasonable risk” and approve manufacture. But if EPA doesn’t have sufficient information to evaluate environmental and health effects or if the lack of information creates an unreasonable risk of harm, EPA can issue an order requiring additional testing or limiting release of the chemical to the environment. Concern that GenX may have risks similar to those already associated with PFOA and PFOS caused EPA to enter  a 2009 consent order that (among other conditions) required Dupont to effectively eliminate release of GenX in wastewater and air emissions from the  manufacturing operation.

♦ Section 8 of TSCA requires chemical manufacturers and distributors to inform EPA of any information the company obtains that would reasonably support a conclusion that a chemical presents a substantial risk of injury to health or the environment.  In 2005, EPA used Section 8 of TSCA to assess a penalty against Dupont for withholding information the company had on the environmental and health effects of PFOA. That EPA action ultimately led to the phaseout of PFOA and development of alternatives like GenX.

Regulatory Gaps –TSCA covers chemicals manufactured or imported into the United States. It does not apply to a chemical by-product of a manufacturing or industrial process.  The TSCA  consent order for GenX limits release of GenX to the environment by the manufacturer,  but not the discharge of GenX  unintentionally created as a result of an unrelated manufacturing or industrial process. As a result, TSCA can’t address all contaminant sources. The TSCA review process also puts EPA in the position of constantly chasing the next generation of potential contaminants.

Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA has adopted national drinking water standards for 88 contaminants. Public water systems must monitor for those contaminants and insure that   water delivered to its customers meets the national standard for each regulated contaminant. Given the number of compounds used in manufacturing or produced as a by-product of industrial activities, national drinking water standards clearly do not exist for many contaminants. EPA has not adopted a  drinking water standard for GenX or any other perfluorinated compounds. EPA has issued a health advisory for PFOA and PFOS (combined) of 70 parts per trillion based on longterm exposure, but a health advisory is not an enforceable drinking water standard. EPA has also said that the PFOA/PFOS  health advisory does not apply to other perflourinated compounds like GenX.  

EPA continues to study the need for a national drinking water standard for perflourinated compounds.  Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA’s decision will be based on: likelihood the contaminants will be found in drinking water; the health effects; and the technical/economic feasibility of treating the water to reduce any health risk. It isn’t clear whether EPA will propose a drinking water standard for PFOA/PFOS and the decision to develop a standard for next generation alternatives like GenX would be even further in the future.

Regulatory Gaps —  EPA has not adopted a national drinking water standard for every contaminant that may be detected in a water source or in a public water system; some existing drinking water standards do not reflect the most recent science.  In the absence of a drinking water standard, an EPA  health advisory can provide guidance to the states on safe levels but health advisories  do not exist for all contaminants.  Many of the environmental and human health risks associated with PFOA and PFOS have been known for 10-15 years, but EPA has not yet proposed a drinking water standard and only issued a health advisory based on long-term exposure in 2016. In the absence of a national drinking water standard or health advisory, presence of significant levels of a contaminant in water supplies may require the state to develop a benchmark for safe drinking water.

Clean Water Act.  The Clean Water Act protects surface waters like lakes and rivers by requiring a permit to discharge waste to those waters.   National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System  (NPDES) permits allow wastewater treatment plants and industries  to discharge wastewater meeting specific pollutant limits. Like other states, North Carolina has assumed responsibility for issuance of NPDES permits in the state.

EPA has set technology-based wastewater limits for individual categories of industries, including chemical plants. But those limits do not cover all pollutants or every possible waste stream.  In the absence of an existing EPA limit or when faced with a new type of waste stream, the state permit writer must set a limit on a case-by-case basis based on factors set out in the Clean Water Act. That puts responsibility on the state water quality agency to determine the appropriate limits for these unregulated pollutants.

Regulatory Gaps — Existing state and federal water quality standards and guidelines for permitting wastewater discharges do not address every potential pollutant. In the absence of federal effluent guidelines for a particular pollutant, the burden will be on the state water quality permitting agency to look at any existing information on the environmental and health effects to set a permit limit.

The challenge for the state. These federal laws create frameworks for approval of the  manufacture and use of chemicals; release  of chemicals to the environment in wastewater; and protection of  drinking water sources.  But the EPA standards adopted under those laws are not comprehensive and often lag behind the emergence of new contaminants or evolving science on risk.  When an unregulated contaminant affects a drinking water source, the responsibility for dealing with the immediate environmental and public health concerns falls on the state.

2017 NC Legislative Session in Review: The Budget

July 16, 2017. A few notes on the final state budget which became law following legislative override of the Governor’s veto.

Funding for Environmental Protection Programs. The final budget continues a 7-year trend of annual reductions in environmental protection programs. (See an earlier post  describing the impact of those earlier reductions.) The most significant new cuts to programs in the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)  affect:

     Energy Programs. The budget takes almost $1 million from energy programs. The budget reduces pass-through funding for university-based energy centers from around $1 million to a total of $400,000 divided equally between centers at Appalachian State University and North Carolina A& T University. North Carolina State University’s Clean Energy Technology Center will receive no funding. The budget also eliminates 3 of 5 positions in DEQ’s Energy Office.

     Regional Offices/Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service.  DEQ’s seven   regional offices house frontline permitting, compliance and technical assistance staff for multiple environmental programs including water quality, water resources, air quality and waste management. Since 2011, the legislature has made the regional offices a particular target  for reductions in positions and funding. The 2017 budget reduces appropriations supporting DEQ’s  Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service by $500,000 and requires DEQ to meet the cut in part by eliminating one position in each of the seven regional offices. The Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service is a non-regulatory program that provides technical assistance to businesses on water conservation, energy efficiency, waste reduction and other measures to improve environmental compliance.

Conservation Funding. Most funding for conservation programs, such as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund now go through the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources budget. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also manages some conservation funds through the Farmland Preservation Trust, which purchases conservation easements on agricultural lands. Conservation funding in both departments generally remained stable. The legislature increased funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, earmarking a combined  $1 million of the increase for an acquisition project on Archer’s Creek (Bogue Banks). The budget also allocates an additional $2.6 million to the Wildlife Resources Commission for acquisition of gamelands and an additional $2 million to the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund.

Surprisingly, the budget did not include state funds to match a federal Department of Defense (DOD) challenge grant of $9.2 million to acquire conservation lands to provide buffers around military installations. DOD announced award of a Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (“REPI”) grant to North Carolina earlier this year for acquisition of buffers around the Dare County Bombing Range and endangered species habitat near Camp Lejeune.  The federal award  anticipated a state contribution of an additional $10.1 to be put toward the projects.  The final state budget failed to earmark any funding for the state match. The  Clean Water Management Trust Fund and other state conservation agencies could provide some  of the state match, but in the absence of a legislative earmark the REPI projects would be competing with other applications for those grant funds.

Special provisions. As usual, the budget bill (Senate Bill 257 ) includes a number of “special provisions” that  change existing law. Those include:

     Air quality. The budget allows DEQ to use fees from automobile emissions inspections to support any part of the air quality program. Previously, inspection fee revenue could only be used to implement the automobile inspection and maintenance program. In the past, the legislature has tilted toward keeping inspection and maintenance fees as low as possible while still providing adequate reimbursement to inspection stations. The 2017 provision  divorces the fees from the needs of the vehicle inspection and maintenance program for the first time.

The budget also requires legislative approval of DEQ’s plan to use approximately $90 million the state will receive from the Environmental Protection Agency’s  national settlement of an air quality enforcement case against Volkswagen.  (The case concerned  VW’s installation of software to defeat vehicle emissions control systems.) Funds from the settlement will be divided among the states and must be spent for purposes specifically allowed under the EPA settlement agreement.  The agreement gives states a number of options and the legislature clearly wants to influence DEQ’s decision about use of the funds.

     Solid Waste. The budget shifts $1 million from a fund for assessment/cleanup of contamination caused by old, unlined  landfills to the City of Havelock to be used for “repurposing” property previously owned by a recycling company.  (See Sec. 13.3) Phoenix Recycling operated on property just beyond the city limits, but closed in 2000 as a result of environmental violations.  In 2012, the City of Havelock received a state grant to assess environmental contamination on the property. In 2015, Havelock’s city manager advised the town council that if the city acquired the property, it could be eligible for up to $550,000 in federal “Brownfield” grant funds under an EPA program to support cleanup and redevelopment of contaminated sites.  In 2016, the city acquired the property and annexed it into the city.  It isn’t clear whether the city ever applied for the federal Brownfields grant. The 2017 budget provision would instead provide state funding for redevelopment of the property. A Progressive Pulse blogpost provides a good overview of how the earmarking of these funds for the Phoenix Recycling property will reduce funds available to cleanup other, higher priority contaminated sites.

Another provision (Sec. 13.4) allows the owner of an old, unlined landfill site to exclude the property from a state program to cleanup contamination  from  “pre-1983” landfills.  (Modern standards for solid waste landfills went into effect in 1983).  Under the provision, the owner can remove property from the state cleanup program by accepting liability for any contamination and providing financial assurance to address contamination. Financial assurance would not be required if the landfill had received solid waste from a local government (which was often the case). This is a very odd provision in several ways:

♦ Under current law, DEQ has responsibility for assessment and cleanup of pre-1983 landfill sites;  revenue from a statewide solid waste disposal tax pays for the remediation. Under the new provision, a property owner would  waive state responsibility for cleanup and potentially accept environmental liability they might not otherwise have.

♦ The provision has not been restricted to sites that present a low environmental  risk; the only limitations seem to be the property owner’s willingness  to take on the liability and ability to provide financial assurance if required.

♦ The provision describes the opt-out as a “suspension” of the state cleanup program for as long as the person owns the property. That clearly means the state itself would not undertake any assessment or cleanup activity on the site, but the law does not suspend enforcement of state groundwater standards and other environmental remediation requirements. Those programs normally seek remediation by the person(s) responsible for the contamination; under the new provision, the property owner  must volunteer for the liability whether they contributed to the contamination or not.

♦  The implication of a “suspension” is that the state may again have responsibility for the site if it changes ownership in the future. Suspending environmental remediation until a change of ownership could simply delay necessary cleanup activities without regard to environmental risk.

It isn’t clear why a property owner would ever choose to do this.

The budget bill also requires a study of DEQ’s use of revenue from the solid waste disposal tax. The opt-out in Section 13.4  may be a hint of additional changes to the solid waste disposal tax and the state cleanup program for pre-1983 landfills.

     Water Quality: Nutrient Pollution.  The (now annual) budget provision concerning nutrient management strategies directs DEQ to use $1.3 million to test use of algaecides and phosphorus-locking technologies as an alternative to state rules imposing tighter wastewater limits and stormwater controls to address excess nutrients  in  Falls Lake and Jordan Lake. Those rules have been temporarily suspended by the legislature.  (For background on the nutrient rules, see a previous post;  the proposal for an automatic sunset  of the nutrient rules described in the earlier  blogpost was ultimately replaced by legislation further delaying implementation of the rules and a university-based study.)  Based on discussion in committee, legislators had a specific technology developed by a North Carolina-based company in mind.

The Federal Budget and North Carolina’s Environment

March 24, 2017.  Last week, the Trump administration released the Trump Budget Blueprint which describes in very general terms the President’s budget proposals for federal agencies.  The Blueprint just opens the debate on the 2018 federal budget.  Congress will significantly influence the final budget and members from both parties have already expressed concern about some of Trump’s proposed budget cuts.   Percentage-wise, the deepest cuts in the Trump Budget Blueprint affect the Environmental Protection Agency.  As background for the coming federal budget debate,  this blogpost looks at the potential impact of the Trump budget plan on key state environmental protection programs.

Based on preliminary reports, the North Carolina Chapter of the Sierra Club provided a guide to the potential impact of the Trump budget the day before actual release of the Budget Blueprint. (Full disclosure — I assisted in preparation of the Sierra Club report.)  For each  major state environmental protection program, the report shows the percentage of the program budget currently funded by federal grants and the impact of cuts identified in the Trump budget plan. The report also provides information on other  DEQ activities supported by  federal grants that may be eliminated under the Trump administration’s  budget plan.

I want to focus on information in the Sierra Club report about impacts to Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs in North Carolina.   EPA  has delegated federal permitting and enforcement authority under those laws to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). EPA provides oversight to ensure the state programs meet federal requirements,  but DEQ has responsibility for day to day implementation.  DEQ issues Clean Water Act permits for wastewater discharges; Clean Air Act permits for  air emissions and air pollution control equipment; and Safe Drinking Water Act permits for public water systems.  DEQ also enforces water quality, air quality and drinking water standards.  In return for the state taking on those federal permitting and enforcement responsibilities, EPA provides program implementation or “categorical” grants to partially offset the cost.

The Trump Budget Blueprint does not provide detail on many cuts, but specifically proposes a 45% reduction in the EPA categorical grants that support basic state Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs. The tables below put the proposed cut in the context of each delegated program’s budget. Some notes on the numbers:

♦ “Total Need” means the complete budget (from all funding sources) for the delegated Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act program.

♦  Both the “total need” and federal funding numbers come from the certified state budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

♦  These numbers only cover the EPA categorical grants for the delegated federal permitting/enforcement programs.  The numbers do not reflect separate federal grants for targeted research or pollution reduction projects like  the Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Program. Some of those federal grants reportedly have been targeted for elimination in Trump administration budget plans.

♦ The proposed federal funding cuts shown below are higher than those show for these same programs in the Sierra Club report because the final Trump Blueprint increased the percentage reduction over those reported earlier.

N.C. Clean Air Act Implementation

Total Need Federal Grant % Federally Funded Proposed Federal Funding Cut
$4,854,105 $2,482,845  50% – 45%

Clean Water Act Program Implementation 

Total Need Federal Grant % Federally Funded Proposed Federal Funding Cut
$14,160,554 $6,662,950   50%  -45%

Safe Drinking Water Act Program Implementation 

Total Need Federal Grant % Federally Funded Proposed Federal Funding Cut
$5,870,612 $3,316,895 50% – 45%

In sum: EPA grants provide 50% of the funding for each of the major environmental permitting and enforcement programs delegated to the state under federal law. A 45% reduction in the federal grant would result in a cut of nearly 25% to each of those state programs.  As discussed in an earlier post, many N.C. environmental protection programs have already experienced significant reductions in state funding since 2009-2010. The water quality program has been particularly hard hit.

Deep cuts to the federal grants would force the state to decide whether to make up the loss of federal funds with increased state appropriations from tax revenue or higher permit fees. The alternative would be to accept further erosion of those programs. The question may be particularly acute for the air quality program which is now entirely supported by the federal grant and permit fees.

You can find the entire Sierra Club report here .

NOTE: The original blog post has been revised to more accurately describe the release date for the Sierra Club guide and to note that information on  percentage reductions to these particular programs changed (for the worse) after release of the Sierra Club report. 

Changing Cleanup Standards for Leaking USTs

Oct. 26, 2016. In June, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released new guidance on remediation of groundwater contamination caused by leaking petroleum underground storage tanks (USTs). The guidance document significantly changes the approach to remediation of  high risk UST sites. Under rules adopted by the Environmental Management Commission (EMC), groundwater contamination at high risk UST sites must be remediated to meet state groundwater quality standards if that is feasible. 15A NCAC 2L.0407(b).

The new guidance directs environmental consultants to assume the cleanup standard for most high risk sites will be  “Gross Contaminant Levels”, which represent contamination at  levels  as much as 1000 X the  groundwater protection or drinking water standards. The guidance raises a number of questions about the impact of more limited cleanup on groundwater and property owners; consistency with EMC rules; and whether the new guidance should have gone through rulemaking  to allow for public comment and adoption by the EMC.

UST Rules. The UST program operates under “risk-based” remediation  rules  that allow less groundwater remediation on sites posing a low risk to public health, safety and the environment and require more extensive remediation on high risk sites.  Existing UST rules require petroleum-contaminated sites to be classified as high, intermediate or low risk based on site conditions and assign a cleanup standard to each risk classification. High risk sites must be remediated to meet the state’s groundwater protection standards to the extent feasible. The groundwater standards set limits  for individual contaminants at the level safe for unrestricted use of the groundwater  — including use as a drinking water supply. Intermediate risk UST sites only have to be remediated to “Gross Contaminant Levels”, which allow contamination at levels as much as 1000 X  the groundwater protection standard or drinking water standard to remain at the end of remediation. Low risk sites may not require any remediation even though contaminant levels  greatly exceed groundwater protection standards.

Under existing rules adopted by the Environmental Management Commission, UST risk classifications are based on a snapshot of conditions around the petroleum release and the likelihood that petroleum contamination will reach water supply wells or create some other imminent health, safety or environmental hazard.  Under  EMC rules (15A NCAC .0406), a UST site is considered “high risk”  if:

(a)  a water supply well… has been contaminated by the release or discharge;
(b)  a drinking water well is located within 1000 feet of the contamination source;
(c)  a water supply well not used for drinking water is located within 250 feet of the source;
(d)  the groundwater within 500 feet of the contamination source could be a future water supply source because there is no other source of water supply;
(e)  the vapors from the discharge or release pose a serious threat of explosion due to accumulation of the vapors in a confined space; or
(f)  the discharge or release poses an imminent danger to public health, public safety, or the environment.

New DEQ guidance on high risk sites. 
North Carolina Petroleum UST Release Corrective Action Phase Project Management: A Calibrated Risk-Based Corrective Action Decision & Implementation Guide, effective June 1, 2016, moves away from the principle of  remediating groundwater at high risk UST sites  to meet state groundwater protection standards.  Instead, the guidance assumes most  sites classified as “high risk” can be remediated only to Gross Contaminant Levels (GCLs).

The guidance document cites data indicating that groundwater contamination plumes contract over time, reducing risk to nearby wells that have not already been contaminated.  Based on state laws directing DEQ to consider factors that limit  risk to nearby wells, DEQ has directed remediation companies to assume older high risk UST sites can be remediated to Gross Contaminant Levels. Under the new guidance, the key factor will be the stability of the contaminant plume. If the plume has stabilized or become sufficiently predictable for DEQ to conclude the contamination does not represent an expanding threat, the cleanup will largely rely on “monitored natural attenuation” of the contamination (natural reduction in contaminant concentrations over time) and the cleanup standard will be based on the GCLs.

A few observations about the new guidance:

♦ The guidance document acknowledges the new remediation guidelines have been driven by a  lack of sufficient state funds to fully remediate even high risk UST sites.

♦ The idea of reviewing high risk classifications based on the age of the site and stability of the plume makes sense, but the new guidance appears to focus on just one risk factor — proximity of the UST’s petroleum release  to existing water supply wells.  The guidance shifts to much more limited cleanup as long as the plume has stabilized and/or alternative water supply is available to well owners affected by petroleum contamination.

The guidance does not appear to consider another factor listed in the Environmental Management Commission’s  risk classification rule — whether groundwater within 500 feet of the UST release may be needed as a future water supply. In areas where groundwater represents the only local water supply source, the EMC risk classification rule intended to protect the groundwater as a potential water supply even in the absence of existing water supply wells.  The new guidance document seems to focus solely on the potential impact to existing wells.

♦  Reliance on GCLs as the final cleanup standard means higher levels of petroleum contamination remain in the groundwater at the completion of remediation. In the absence of extended monitoring, making GCLs the default remediation standard for plumes close to existing water supply wells or in areas where water supply wells may be installed in the future transfers risk from the UST owner to nearby property owners.  UST risk classifications rely on a snapshot of conditions around the petroleum release.  A change in conditions can lower risk (as the guidance document assumes), but conditions can also change in ways that increase risk.  Installation of a new water supply well  or changed  use of an existing well can affect the behavior of the contaminant plume, exposing well users to petroleum contamination.  Given that possibility,  greater monitoring of  high risk sites remediated only to gross contaminant levels may be needed.

♦  Since the guidance document changes implementation of the UST rules,  it likely would be considered a “rule” under the state’s Administrative Procedure Act.  In addition to creating a presumption that  gross contaminant levels will be the cleanup standard for all UST sites — a departure from the existing EMC rule — the guidance document establishes specific triggers for reexamination of an existing site classification. The new DEQ guidance may or may not be good policy, but any policy generally applicable to UST owners and operators would be considered a rule and the Environmental Management Commission has rule-making authority over the UST program. Failure to use the rule-making process also sidesteps any opportunity for comment by UST owners/operators, remediation companies, adjacent property owners or other members of the public on the potential impact of the changes.

♦  The change in UST remediation standards is only the latest step back from protection of groundwater as a water supply resource important to the state’s future.  A significant number of North Carolinians rely on groundwater for water supply either; around 50% of the population drinks water from private water supply wells or well-based water systems. Farms  often rely on water supply wells for irrigation and water supply for animals. In recent years, the direction of state policy has moved consistently toward less remediation of groundwater contamination because of the cost to the state or the cost to the polluter. The question is whether those cost/benefit calculations given enough consideration to the long-term costs of groundwater contamination.

The Ongoing Controversy Over Coal Ash and Well Contamination

August 21, 2016. The controversy over changing state advice to well owners near Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments has exploded again over conflicting accounts — within the McCrory administration — of the basis for “do not drink” letters sent in 2015 and later withdrawn. Two earlier posts here and here provide background on groundwater and drinking water standards for vanadium and hexavalent chromium (the contaminant of greatest concern).

In 2015, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) sent health advisory letters to the owners of wells with concentrations of hexavalent chromium (chromium 6 or Cr-6)  above 0.07 ppb.  The 0.07 ppb threshold represented the concentration of Cr-6 associated with an increased cancer risk of 1:1 million. In early 2016, the McCrory administration rescinded most of the letters and advised well owners that water meeting the federal drinking water standard for total chromium  (100 ppb) should be considered safe to drink. The total chromium standard covers both chromium-3 and the more toxic chromium-6.

Within the last two weeks, the conflict between DHHS and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) over the content of the health advisory letters  again made headlines. This post describes the roles of  DHHS and DEQ in groundwater contamination incidents; explains the criteria for developing groundwater standards; and makes a few observations on the implications of the conflict for future groundwater contamination incidents.

The role of DHHS in groundwater contamination incidents and development of groundwater standards. When contamination affects drinking water wells,  DHHS toxicologists often advise on the potential health effects. If there is no existing drinking water or groundwater standard for the specific contaminant, the toxicologists use established protocols to assess the contaminant’s short-term  and long-term health effects. Acute health effects include organ damage, skin rashes, respiratory problems and other short to intermediate term problems. Long-term health effects often focus on increased cancer risk. DHHS may also work with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a health-based groundwater standard for a contaminant that has no existing numeric standard in state or federal rules.  DHHS toxicologists advise rather than regulate. DEQ has responsibility for enforcement of state groundwater standards and oversight for groundwater cleanup.

Cancer risk as a factor in setting groundwater standards and assessing groundwater contamination.  Both state and federal environmental agencies consider increased  cancer risk as a factor in assessing groundwater contamination and setting goals for groundwater cleanup.  North Carolina’s  groundwater rules list a  1:1 million increased cancer risk as a primary criteria for setting groundwater quality standards.  In 15A NCAC 2L.0202(d),  the rules require a state groundwater standard to be based on the lesser  of  the

(1)  Systemic threshold concentration calculated as follows: [Reference Dose (mg/kg/day) x 70 kg (adult body weight) x Relative Source Contribution (.10 for inorganics; .20 for organics)] / [2 liters/day (avg. water consumption)];

(2)  Concentration which corresponds to an incremental lifetime cancer risk of 1×10-6;

(3)  Taste threshold limit value;

(4)  Odor threshold limit value;

(5)  Maximum contaminant level[the federal drinking water standard]; or

(6)  National secondary drinking water standard.

Based on recent public statements by DHHS scientists, DHHS and DEQ staff in the Division of Waste Management calculated increased cancer risk associated with Cr-6 exposure using a standard protocol. The two agencies concluded that  0.07 ppb represented the break-point for the 1:1 million increased cancer risk.  The  DEQ/DHHS calculation of increased cancer risk associated with > 0.07 ppb of  Cr-6  then became the basis for  “do not drink” letters sent to well owners in 2015.

Health advisories based on groundwater contamination. DHHS has long worked with DEQ staff  to  advise well owners on health risks associated with groundwater contamination. Both DHHS and DEQ report to the Governor, creating  a strong incentive for the agencies to agree on assessment of public health risk.  Environmental and public health experts may debate  the appropriate standard for a contaminant,  but  public conflict between the two agencies is  extremely unusual and may be unprecedented.

The split between DHHS and DEQ over advice to well owners.  According to DHHS scientists, the 0.07 ppb standard for CR-6 based on increased cancer risk reflected the consensus of DHHS public health experts and staff in DEQ’s Division of Waste Management.  DEQ leaders, however, encouraged DHHS to advise well owners that water exceeding the 0.07 standard should still be considered safe to drink as long as Cr-6 levels did not exceed the federal drinking water standard of 100 ppb.  DEQ publicly raised  concerns about the DHHS health advisories  in a January 2016 presentation to a legislative committee. The presentation compared the 0.07 ppb standard  to the federal drinking water standard and to standards adopted by other states.  Within a month after the legislative presentation,  DEQ and DHHS sent new letters advising well owners that well water with Cr-6 levels below 100 ppb should be considered safe to drink because the water meets federal drinking water standards.  Recent  statements by state toxicologist Ken Rudo and state epidemiologist Megan Davies (who has resigned over the issue) make it clear that DHHS public health experts did not believe the existing state and federal standards for total chromium sufficiently protected human health and objected to the revised letters.  The 100 ppb standard for total chromium represents an increased cancer risk orders of magnitude higher than the 0.07 ppb standard — 1:700 increased risk of cancer versus  1:1 million increased risk.

Some observations:

♦   The state’s groundwater standard remains 10 ppb for total chromium and the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 directs DEQ to use state groundwater standards in assessing drinking water wells around coal ash impoundments.  DEQ  has not  proposed a specific state groundwater standard for Cr-6 based on the DEQ/DHHS cancer risk calculation. As a result, the 0.07 ppb standard remains a health advisory rather than an enforceable groundwater standard. The federal drinking water standard of 100 ppb does not apply to either groundwater assessment or evaluation of well safety near coal ash impoundments.

♦  According to Secretary Donald van der Vaart, DEQ does not question the DHHS calculation of increased cancer risk associated with Cr-6.   Given the gap between the total chromium standard of 10 ppb and the 0.07 ppb threshold for a 1:1 million increased cancer risk associated with chromium-6,  the  total chromium standard does not meet a basic criteria for a N.C. groundwater standards — which requires a groundwater standard to be based on the 1:1 million increased cancer risk —  and should be reviewed.

♦ State and federal agencies routinely use the  1:1 million increased cancer risk as a criteria  for developing health-based standards for permitting  and to set environmental remediation goals.  Both state and federal programs also recognize that there may be a need to move off the 1:1million cancer risk criteria in individual cases because it is not technically or economically feasible to meet the standard.  In those instances, the agency can adjust a groundwater cleanup goal  (for example) to reflect the limits of available technology.

Going forward.  As a practical matter, the difference between the DHHS health-based standard and the state groundwater standard has no direct enforcement consequences for Duke Energy. For the time being, the applicable state groundwater standard continues to be the total chromium standard of 10 ppb.  Under 2016 amendments to Coal Ash Management Act,  Duke Energy must  provide a permanent alternative water supply to all well owners within 1/2 miles of a coal ash pond which makes both the  cancer risk  threshold and the state groundwater standard irrelevant to decisions about alternative water supply.

Assuming no change in the state groundwater standard, the 10 ppb total chromium standard will also drive development and approval of  groundwater remediation plans for areas surrounding the coal ash impoundments.

The cancer risk threshold for Cr-6  does raise questions about the adequacy of the state’s  total chromium standard.  The DHHS calculation of cancer risk suggests the  existing total chromium does not meet one of the basic criteria for state groundwater standards — protection against a 1:1 million increase in cancer risk.

The public conflict between DEQ and DHHS raises two other questions —

Should  state environmental and public health agencies inform citizens  of the health risk  associated with contamination that meets existing regulatory standards? DHHS public health officials felt an obligation to inform well owners of the higher cancer risk potentially associated with elevated levels of CR-6; DEQ took the position that the warnings were unnecessarily alarming if the well water met federal drinking water standards.

The other question is more technical and would inevitably come up in any reevaluation of the groundwater standard for chromium: Is there any economic or technical reason not to use the more stringent 0.07 ppb standard as the basis for assessing risk of human exposure to Cr-6 in groundwater and setting groundwater remediation goals?  The choice of a standard has implications  beyond the immediate controversy over coal ash impoundments and so far there has not been a practical critique of the 0.07 ppb threshold based on technology or cost.  The reason behind DEQ’s objection to the DHHS 0.07 ppb threshold as a basis for health advisories still isn’t entirely clear since it appears most  public water systems  in the state meet the DHHS health-based standard. Those that don’t meet the 0.07 ppb standard come much closer than a number of the wells  DEQ argued should be considered safe because the water meets the federal drinking water standard of 100 ppb.

Fact-Checking the History of Coal Ash Regulation in N.C.

July 27, 2016. Misunderstanding history makes it more likely  the same mistakes will be made again. In that spirit, a fact-check of recent DEQ statements1 about the history of coal ash regulation in North Carolina:

“In 2007, a previous administration changed landfill laws and specifically exempted coal-ash ponds from many environmental requirements.”

The statement seems to be referring to the Solid Waste Management Act of 2007 which amended landfill siting and construction standards.  Two provisions related to coal ash landfills, but nothing in the law directly addressed coal ash ponds. Coal ash was not the main focus of the 2007 law, which responded to several controversial applications to construct new landfills for household waste and construction debris. As a result, the law  focused on concerns specific to those  proposals — impacts on wildlife refuges and parks; the size and height of waste disposal areas; separation from groundwater; and guarantees the landfill owner could pay for  environmental remediation.

The first of two provisions in the 2007 law affecting coal ash allowed utilities to construct a lined coal ash landfill on top of an old coal ash disposal site under specific standards. The second provision exempted coal ash landfills on the site of a coal-fired power plant from some of the new landfill siting requirements.   Coal ash landfills located on power plant sites continued to be regulated as industrial landfills under standards that required liners;  groundwater monitoring; and setbacks from waters and wetlands. The Department of Environment of Environment and Natural Resources (“DENR”) did not request either coal ash provision.

“In 2009, the state exempted Duke Energy from having to show that its coal-ash ponds were structurally sound. If that information had been required, the corroded pipe under the Dan River coal ash pond might have been found and the spill avoided.”

In 2009, the General Assembly actually repealed a state Dam Safety Act exemption for coal ash impoundments. See Session Law 2009-390.   Before 2009,  coal ash ponds had been entirely exempt from the dam safety law.  Repeal of the exemption made coal ash impoundments subject to the dam safety law  for the first time — requiring compliance with dam safety standards; regular state inspections; and DENR review/approval of plans for expansion or repair.

DEQ’s statement may be focused on language in the 2009 legislation that allowed existing coal ash impoundments to “… be deemed to have received all of the necessary approvals  from [DENR]  and the Commission for Dam Safety for normal operation and maintenance”. In effect, the law allowed impoundments built before repeal of the exemption to continue to operate as if the state had permitted the original construction.  Those impoundments, however, would be inspected going forward and required to comply with dam safety orders to address structural deficiencies.  On balance, the 2009 legislation greatly increased rather than diminished state oversight of coal ash impoundments under the Dam Safety Act.

The Dam Safety Act amendments did not cause state and federal regulators to miss critical information about the Dan River stormwater pipe that later ruptured. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DENR dam safety staff became aware of the stormwater pipes at the Dan River impoundment in 2009-2010. Before inspecting N.C. impoundments as part of the federal response to the TVA coal ash disaster,  EPA asked electric utilities to provide information on  structural conditions at each impoundment site in the state. Maps of the Dan River site that Duke Energy provided to state and federal inspectors incorrectly identified the stormwater pipes as concrete rather than corrugated metal.   The error meant state and federal inspectors did not have complete and accurate information as background for the inspections,  but not because the 2009 law allowed electric utilities to shield information about the impoundments — it didn’t.

Note:  It later became clear that internal Duke Energy inspection reports had flagged the metal pipes at Dan River for attention as early as the 1980s. In accepting a plea deal to a large federal penalty for the Dan River spill,  Duke Energy acknowledged a pattern of neglect that included failure to take the advice of its own engineers in 2011 and 2012 to do camera inspections of the stormwater pipes.

“In 2010 federal regulators required leaks from all coal ash ponds to be evaluated. No action was taken in North Carolina for three years.” 

By 2010,  EPA  had taken several steps to get a better handle on coal ash impoundments. In 2009, EPA  launched the nationwide effort to assess the structural integrity of coal ash impoundments.   Based on information provided by the electric utilities, EPA did on-site inspections of  eight higher risk  N.C. impoundment sites in 2009-2010 including the Dan River facility.  Inspectors from the state’s water quality, waste management and dam safety programs accompanied EPA on most of those inspections.  Also in 2009-2010, state dam safety inspectors did an initial dam safety inspection of every coal ash impoundment as the first step in bringing those impoundments under the Dam Safety Act.

On a different track, EPA  provided new guidance to states on permitting  discharges  from coal ash impoundments under the Clean Water Act ; the new guidance recognized that  discharges could result from seeps and leaks through impoundment walls.  In 2010-2012, the state water quality program began increasing  groundwater monitoring requirements for coal ash ponds and  revising stormwater permits for impoundment sites. It may be that state programs gave higher priority to  structural impoundment problems, groundwater contamination and stormwater permitting in 2010-2012 and lower priority to  addressing the water quality impacts of leaks. It is difficult to know without more information.

“In 2011 the state gave Duke Energy approval to use Sutton lake, a recreational area in Wilmington, as a dumping ground for coal ash.” 

Sutton Lake has not been used for coal ash disposal. Coal ash from the Sutton Power Plant went into one of two coal ash impoundments;  outlets release water from the impoundments to Sutton Lake. Another outlet releases water from Sutton Lake to the Cape Fear River.  The earliest Clean Water Act permit for the Sutton Plant accessible on the DEQ  website (from 1996)  treated the outlet to the Cape Fear River as the permitted discharge point and applied effluent standards there. Although the permit also put water quality limits on discharges from the coal ash impoundments to Sutton Lake, the lake was regulated as a cooling pond — part of the wastewater treatment system — rather than as “waters of the State” protected under the Clean Water Act.  Every renewal of the 5-year Clean Water Act permit from 1996 through  2011 continued that approach. Apparently water quality staff revisited the question of whether Sutton Lake should be treated as a cooling pond or as “waters of the State”  in  2011, but decided to maintain the approach used in earlier permit renewals. In 2014, the department (now the Department of Environmental Quality) looked at the issue again and concluded — correctly, I think — that the permit should be modified to treat Sutton Lake as “waters of the State” and put effluent limits on discharges to the lake. It isn’t clear why the water quality program and the Environmental Management Commission reached a different conclusion in issuing and renewing earlier permits.

“For many years Duke Energy monitored the water under its ponds and found hundreds of samples that did not meet groundwater standards. Again, no action was taken. In fact, the prior administration created a policy instructing regulators not to fine Duke if the company said it would correct the problem.”

The state water quality program  first began requiring comprehensive groundwater monitoring for coal ash constituents in 2009-2010, imposing new groundwater monitoring conditions as Clean Water Act discharge permits for the impoundments came up for renewal.  The new conditions covered key contaminants associated with coal ash and required groundwater monitoring to be done under a state-approved plan to insure monitoring wells would be appropriately placed to detect violations.  Given the  time required to install monitoring wells and collect a full cycle of monitoring results, little data  showing a  groundwater standard violation related to coal ash would have been available before 2010.  None of the groundwater violations cited in DEQ’s  2014 enforcement action concerning the Sutton Power Plant predate 2009;  most come from the period between 2010 and 2014.

Before 2009-2010, most of the state’s coal ash impoundments operated without significant groundwater monitoring for decades.  Electric utilities built many of the impoundments in the 1960s and 1970s  before any environmental regulations applied.  In the late 1970s,  the state began issuing federal Clean Water Act permits for discharges from the impoundments to rivers, lakes and streams. Environmental regulation focused on the quality of water discharged from the upper layers of the ash ponds to surface waters rather than the coal ash itself.  In the 1980s-1990s, the state began putting  groundwater monitoring conditions on the discharge permits, but the monitoring focused on very basic parameters. For the Sutton Plant,  those parameters were:   water level,  pH, chlorides, iron, arsenic, selenium and total suspended solids. Groundwater concerns had not yet focused on contaminants specifically associated with coal ash.

Groundwater concerns increased after 2000 as EPA continued to lay the groundwork for a federal coal ash disposal rule. In 2006, electric utilities began voluntarily  monitoring for contaminants associated with coal ash in the face of pressure from environmental organizations and expected federal rulemaking.  Most of the data from the voluntary monitoring could not be used in state enforcement actions.  Under state groundwater rules, a violation exists only if the impoundment causes an exceedence of groundwater standards at or beyond a compliance boundary around the pond.  (For most N.C.  impoundments, the compliance boundary is set 500 feet from the edge of the pond.)  Wells used by the utilities for the voluntary groundwater monitoring had not been placed to document groundwater standard violations at the compliance boundary.  But based on the voluntary monitoring results,  the state water quality program  put broader groundwater monitoring conditions on impoundment permits and required monitoring to be done under a state-approved well-siting plan to insure the data could be used for future enforcement.

The enforcement policy mentioned in the DEQ statement refers to 2010 groundwater enforcement guidance developed by water quality staff.  Since the expanded groundwater monitoring requirements applied to facilities that had operated for many years without monitoring, the water quality program developed a policy that put the enforcement emphasis on remediation of contamination rather than assessment of penalties for activities that had been unregulated  or lightly regulated for much of the facility’s history.

What the fact-checked history suggests:

It is difficult to contain environmental impacts 20 to 40 years after the fact. Both state and federal regulators struggled to understand and address problems associated with a method of coal ash disposal electric utilities had already invested in and become reliant on by the time environmental impacts became a concern.

The basic arc of state and federal regulation looks like this: In the 1970s,  state and federal regulators focused on discharges from existing coal ash ponds to surface waters. There was a quiet period between issuance of the first Clean Water Act discharge permits for coal ash impoundments in the late 1970s through the 1990s.  Regulators assumed the electric utilities were maintaining the impoundments properly and indicators of  groundwater contamination associated with coal ash had not reached critical mass. EPA began working on a federal coal ash disposal rule in the late 1990s, but abandoned the proposed rule in 2000 in the face of strong political opposition. Between 2000 and 2008, troubling data on groundwater and surface water pollution associated with coal ash ponds accumulated and the 2008 TVA spill undermined confidence in the electric utilities’ maintenance of impoundments.  Both state and federal regulatory efforts accelerated in 2008-2009, leading to state permitting changes and renewed efforts to adopt a federal coal ash disposal rule. (EPA finalized the federal rule in 2015.)

The issues surrounding coal ash have not been the responsibility of any one administration or a single branch of government. The history spans multiple governors of both political parties and legislative as well as executive action.  Coal ash provisions in the 2007 Solid Waste Management Act came out of direct negotiation between the electric utilities and legislators.  In  2009, the General Assembly repealed the Dam Safety Act exemption for coal ash impoundments,  but did not move a bill to set comprehensive state standards for coal ash disposal out of committee.

Leaps in state law on coal ash  management followed specific crises — the coal ash impoundment exemption from the Dam Safety Act survived until the 2008 TVA spill put a spotlight on poor maintenance. In  2009, the  General Assembly had no interest in moving comprehensive coal ash disposal legislation; that only changed after the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill .

By 2009, accumulating evidence of groundwater contamination and other water quality concerns led the state water quality program to use existing permitting authority to require more groundwater monitoring around coal ash impoundments and increase stormwater requirements. Those  efforts to use existing permitting tools more effectively laid the foundation for later groundwater enforcement actions.

 

 1 The statements  in bold appeared in  a recent letter by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder to the Raleigh News and Observer.

House-Senate Compromise on Watershed Rules

June 30, 2016. The House has begun debate on a  compromise version of the 2016-2017 budget bill (House Bill 1030) that resolves differences between House and Senate budget proposals. The new budget bill includes a modified version of a Senate provision on watershed-based water quality rules. See an earlier post  for more on the original Senate provision in Sec. 14.13 of the budget bill. The significant pieces of the compromise provision:

The scope  of the budget provision has been reduced. The new version of Sec. 14.13 only applies to nutrient rules adopted for the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake watersheds.

The provision no longer sunsets existing nutrient rules. The budget provision still funds a UNC study of nutrient rules (focused on the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake rules) and directs the Environmental Management Commission to review and readopt  those nutrient management rules based on recommendations from the study.  But the bill no longer automatically sunsets existing rules.

The UNC study of nutrient management strategies.  The budget provision now funds the study for six years at $500,000 per year ($3 million for the entire study) and has separate report-back dates for the two watersheds — December 31, 2018 for  Jordan Lake and December 21, 2021 for Falls Lake. In part, the provision requires UNC to compare water quality trends  in Falls Lake and Jordan Lake to implementation of the different parts of the nutrient strategies. Since a number of the nutrient rules have not yet gone into effect because of legislative delays, evaluating the effectiveness of the rules based on water quality trends will be difficult. That is particularly true for wastewater discharge limits and stormwater controls that have never been implemented or only partially implemented in the two watersheds.

Delayed implementation of the Jordan Lake and Falls Lake rules. The provision further delays implementation of the nutrient management rules until at least 2019 for the Jordan Lake watershed and 2022 for the Falls Lake watershed.

DEQ study of in-situ technologies to address nutrient-related water quality problems. The budget provision continues to require a DEQ study of in situ technologies to reduce nutrient problems — now focused on algaecides and phosphorus-locking technologies. The DEQ study will be entirely separate from the UNC study of nutrient management strategies and  receives a separate appropriation of  $1.3 million for a trial of in situ technologies.    The final report will be due on March 1, 2018.

Exclusion of areas within the Jordan Lake watershed from stormwater requirements. The compromise  budget includes a new  subsection 14.13(f)  that says new impervious surface added in the Jordan Lake watershed between July 31, 2013  and December 2020 (after study and readopting of the rules as required under the budget provision) should not be counted as built-upon area for purposes of developing nutrient reduction targets under the Jordan Lake stormwater rules.  It isn’t entirely clear what this means.

Under  federal Clean Water Act requirements, the state has an obligation to cap discharges of any pollutant causing impaired water quality. These caps (called a Total Maximum Daily Load  or “TMDL”) must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Jordan Lake rules cap nutrient loading at a level necessary to address impaired water quality in the Jordan Lake reservoir; meeting the TMDL  requires a reduction  in nutrient loading  from the   baseline years  of 1997-2001. The rules then allocate the reductions proportionately to the different arms of Jordan Lake and to major nutrient sources in those watersheds – wastewater dischargers, stormwater runoff from developed areas, and agricultural activities.

So  the new Sec. 14.13(f) raises several issues –

  1. The new subsection  is written as though local governments in the Jordan Lake watershed develop their own stormwater nutrient reduction targets and can change the reduction target by excluding newly developed areas.  In reality, the reduction targets have been based on  allocation of the  reductions required  to meet the Jordan Lake TMDL under  EMC rules and a watershed model developed by DEQ.
  2. It  assumes that the nutrient reduction target assigned to stormwater would change based on development over this 7-year time period, but the target is based on reduction from the historic baseline of 1997-2001. The one thing that changes by delaying implementation of the Jordan Lake stormwater rules is that more areas will fall under requirements for stormwater retrofits of existing development rather than stormwater rules for new development projects.
  3. If the intent is to exclude these recently developed areas from future implementation of  Jordan Lake stormwater rules for new or existing development, DEQ may have to allocate greater reductions to other nutrient sources in order to meet the Jordan Lake TMDL approved by EPA.

A new cross-reference to Chesapeake Bay stormwater measures. Another new subsection, Sec. 14.13(i),  requires the state to allow stormwater measures approved by the Chesapeake Bay Commission for use in meeting the Chesapeake Bay  TMDL to also be used to meet the Jordan Lake  and Falls Lake TMDLs  based on the same nutrient reduction credit allowed under the Chesapeake Bay program.  The Chesapeake Bay Program (rather than the Chesapeake Bay Commission) maintains the Chesapeake Bay TMDL model and seems to be the gatekeeper for pollution reduction credits included in the model. Credits for nutrient removal under the Chesapeake Bay model  will likely turn out to be a range based on the type of stormwater measure; the area; the volume of stormwater treated; etc. It isn’t immediately clear  what — if any — stormwater measures would be authorized under this provision that are not already allowed under state rules.

A Senate Proposal on Coal Ash and Commissions

June 29, 2016. The N.C. Senate quickly brought to committee and then to the floor a new bill attempting  to resolve the separation of powers conflict over  appointments to the Coal Ash Management Commission, the Mining Commission and the Oil and Gas Commission.  (The Governor had vetoed an earlier bill to address the separation of powers issue; see this post for background on the previous bill and the Governor’s objections.)

The new bill, a  repurposed  House Bill 630 , represents a compromise between the Governor’s Office,  the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Senate leaders. House leaders did not participate in the negotiation and will have to vote to accept the changes for H 630 to  become law. A summary of H 630 as it passed the Senate below:

The Commissions. The bill eliminates the Coal Ash Management Commission, leaving implementation of the Coal Ash Management Act entirely to DEQ.  The Mining Commission and the Oil and Gas Commission remain,  but those laws have been amended to  give the Governor power to appoint a majority of the commission members subject to confirmation by the legislature. The bill also slightly modifies the Governor’s power to remove a commission member, adding “for good cause” to existing provisions that  allow the Governor to remove a member for misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance.  (It isn’t clear how much “for good cause”  adds to the Governor’s removal power.)

The bill previously vetoed by the Governor had amended the appointment provisions for all three commissions and clarified the Governor’s power to remove commission members. In vetoing that bill, the Governor’s Office argued that commissions operating outside the Governor’s full  direction and control cannot constitutionally make executive decisions. The Governor’s Office also rejected the idea of legislative confirmation of appointees as another violation of separation of powers.  Agreement to H 630 suggests the Governor’s Office has softened on those positions, but the price of the agreement may have been elimination of the Coal Ash Management Commission.

Implementation of the Coal Ash Management Act.  H 630 also makes significant changes to the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA).

♦  H 630 requires  Duke Energy to provide a permanent alternative water supply to well owners within 1/2 mile of the compliance boundary around a coal ash impoundment and to well owners in areas where groundwater contamination associated with the impoundment is expected to migrate based on hydrogeologic studies.

♦  By eliminating the Coal Ash Management Commission, the bill gives DEQ complete control over the risk classification of impoundments and approval of final closure plans.

♦  The process for assigning final risk classifications to each impoundment has changed significantly:

— The bill eliminates the list of specific risk classification criteria in the 2014 law, leaving only general language on consideration of  “risks to public health, safety, and welfare; the environment; and natural resources”.

—  The number of impoundment sites with predetermined risk classifications has expanded from the four sites designated as High Risk in the 2014 Coal Ash Management Act to include an additional 3 sites designated by H 630  as Intermediate Risk. Impoundments classified as High Risk or Intermediate Risk under CAMA must be excavated and the coal ash removed for disposal in a lined landfill or beneficial reuse. Citizen’s suits over coal ash at the three sites designated as Intermediate Risk had ended in settlement agreements requiring excavation and removal of the coal ash in those impoundments.

—  H 630 allows every other impoundment site  (seven total) to be classified as Low Risk as long as Duke Energy: 1.   provides a permanent alternative water supply to potentially affected well owners as required under the bill;  and 2. resolves all  structural dam safety issues.  Under CAMA, Low Risk sites can potentially be closed by dewatering and capping the ash in place instead of removing the ash for disposal or reuse. For those  seven sites, a final classification decision can remain open until Nov. 30 2018 (or Nov. 30 2019 if DEQ grants an extension) to allow  Duke Energy time to complete alternative water supply projects and dam safety improvements. Impoundments that fail to meet the Low Risk criteria by those dates would automatically be classified as  Intermediate Risk.

Having reduced the criteria for Low Risk classification to just the two, the bill provides no opportunity  for additional public input before DEQ finalizes those impoundment classifications.

♦ The bill gives DEQ more power over final closure plans. In addition to removing oversight by the Coal Ash Management Commission, the bill allows DEQ to determine the final closure plan rather than simply approving or disapproving a plan proposed by Duke Energy.  Theoretically, DEQ could reject a Duke Energy proposal to excavate an impoundment rather than cap the coal ash in place. The bill doesn’t provide criteria for DEQ to apply in making final closure decisions.  (The 2014 CAMA had directed the Coal Ash Management Commission to consider economic and technical feasibility; protection of public health, safety,  welfare, the environment and natural resources; and potential impact on cost to ratepayers.)

♦  H 630 keeps existing CAMA language  prohibiting  approval of a cap in place closure plan unless the plan will “prevent…post-closure exceedances of groundwater quality standards beyond the compliance boundary”, but adds an alternative closure standard that may be less protective of groundwater.

Under the new alternative,  DEQ could  also approve a cap in place closure plan under standards in federal coal ash disposal rules.  Unlike  CAMA, the federal rule does not explicitly bar use of capping in place if the capped coal ash would be a continuing source of groundwater contamination, saying only that the closure plan must:

Control, minimize or eliminate, to the maximum extent feasible, post-closure infiltration of liquids into the waste and releases of CCR, leachate, or contaminated run-off to the ground or surface waters or to the atmosphere…

[40 CFR 257.100(b). This rule applies to closure of inactive coal ash impoundments, but similar language appears in closure standards for active impoundments.]

The standard in the federal rule does not clearly require a cap in place closure plan to prevent  post-closure groundwater standard violations. Allowing use of the federal closure standard could be interpreted to give DEQ discretion to authorize capping in place as long as leaching of contaminants to groundwater will be “minimized”  — a lesser requirement than preventing post-closure groundwater contamination beyond the compliance boundary.  The challenge will be how to square application of the federal closure standard with groundwater corrective action requirements in other sections of the Coal Ash Management Act.

♦ A new section on coal ash reuse  requires Duke Energy to identify three coal ash sites that would each be  capable of processing 300,000 tons of ash for cement products — two sites to be identified in January 2017 and a third by July 2017.  The bill directs Duke Energy  to begin work on contracts/permit applications  as soon as possible after identifying the sites and to begin operation within 24 months after receiving permits.

The Senate version of H 630 has now gone back to the House for a concurrence vote.

The Future of Watershed-Based Water Quality Rules

June 22, 2016. A controversial water quality provision in the N.C. Senate’s proposed budget would repeal (and perhaps replace –that is less certain) all state rules adopted over the last twenty years to address pollution problems caused by excess nutrients.  Sec. 14.13 in the Senate version of House Bill 1030 further delays full implementation of the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake rules; creates a  $2 million study of nutrient management programs; and repeals all existing water quality rules addressing nutrients pollution effective December 31, 2020.

The Senate Proposal.  The provision requires the state’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to adopt new nutrient management rules based on the study results, but repeals all  existing rules at the end of 2020  even if no alternative  rules are in place.  In addition to Jordan Lake  and Falls Lake, the repeal/replace provision would affect water quality rules in the Tar-Pamlico River Basin; the Neuse River Basin; the Catawba River Basin; the Randleman Reservoir watershed; and the endangered species management plan in the Yadkin-PeeDee River’s Goose Creek watershed. It would also apply to any other riparian buffer requirements identified by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).   Still hoping for an alternative to  rules, the Senate budget also appropriates $500,000  to  study use of freshwater mussels to reduce the water quality impact of excess  nutrients.

In most cases, state nutrient management rules also satisfy a federal Clean Water Act requirement to reduce the discharge of a pollutant (in this case nitrogen and/or phosphorus) causing impaired water quality. In North Carolina’s  “nutrient sensitive” river basins and watersheds,  the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  has approved the nutrient reduction targets in state rules as meeting Clean Water Act  requirements.   To achieve the reduction targets, the rules require reductions in nutrient  discharges by wastewater treatment plants and nutrient runoff from agriculture and development activities. Walking away from the nutrient reduction targets has implications for Clean Water Act enforcement and the state’s delegated water quality permitting programs.

Although the Goose Creek rules rely on similar pollution reduction tools (including riparian buffers and stormwater controls),  those rules protect endangered species habitat.  The rules resulted from a lengthy negotiation with the  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which has responsibility for enforcing the federal Endangered Species Act. Repeal of the rules would likely bring both U.S. Fish and Wildlife  and EPA into the conversation.

Nothing similar to the Senate provision appears in the House version of the budget or in any other legislation pending in the House.  The two chambers are currently negotiating this (and other) differences between the House and Senate budget bills.

Have the Nutrient Rules Failed? The Senate provision describes the state’s existing nutrient management  programs as failures. In reality, legislation has prevented full implementation of the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake nutrient rules.  The rules that have been fully implemented  — such as those in the Neuse River and Tar River basins — significantly reduced nutrient loading from wastewater discharges, agriculture and stormwater runoff.  In judging the effectiveness of watershed-based strategies, some things to keep in mind: 1.  Population growth and development in the watersheds continued to increase; and 2. Existing nutrient reduction strategies do not address all potential nutrient sources (smaller wastewater treatment plants; failing septic tanks; atmospheric deposition of nitrogen; and soil erosion).

DEQ has tracked the effect of nutrient rules in the Neuse River and Tar-Pamlico River basins; some of the results can be found here.  A  number of independent academic researchers have also studied the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico  river basin rules.  All of the studies confirm that sources covered by the rules significantly reduced their nutrient discharges. Wastewater treatment plants met the goal of reducing nitrogen discharges by 30% from the baseline years even as population and wastewater flows increased. Agriculture met or exceeded the 30% reduction goal for agricultural operations through use of  Best Management Practices. A recent EMC report confirmed  the value of  riparian buffers as part of a watershed-based plan to reduce nutrient runoff from developed areas.

Complicating the picture is the fact that  total  in-stream nutrient concentrations  have not consistently remained below  baseline levels.  A DEQ  study completed in 2008 found that in-stream concentrations of inorganic forms of nitrogen  (nitrates and ammonia) declined at the monitoring sites, but  increases in organic nitrogen offset those reductions.   The rules haven’t  failed; given population growth and increased development in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins,   nitrogen concentrations would have been higher in the absence of the rules. But the rules have not fully solved the problem of nutrient over-enrichment.

Opposition to the Nutrient Rules.  Opposition has tended to be strongest in the communities on the Haw River arm of the Jordan Lake watershed affected by the Jordan Lake rules. (The Haw River watershed includes the cities of Greensboro and Burlington.) Since EMC adoption of the Jordan Lake rules in 2009,  legislation to repeal or delay implementation of the rules has been introduced every year.  Objections  have focused on the cost of wastewater treatment plant upgrades to meet tighter discharge limits;  expansion of  stormwater programs;  and the development impact of new riparian buffer requirements. To these upstream Haw River communities, the costs have no local benefit; water quality improvements benefit downstream communities. (Although many of the downstream communities have met similar requirements under the Neuse River rules for years to benefit the Neuse River estuary.)

The City of Durham and Durham County, affected by both the Falls Lake and the Jordan Lake rules, also have concerns about the feasibility and cost of meeting nutrient reduction goals.

Also in the background — riparian buffer requirements have long been unpopular with real estate developers and homebuilders in all of the river basins/watersheds where buffers have been part of a nutrient reduction strategy.

DEQ’s Position.   DEQ has not taken a public position on the Senate proposal, but a February presentation by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder to the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission questioned the effectiveness of the watershed-based nutrient rules.  Reeder’s presentation tended to emphasize the cost of the nutrient rules and  limited impact on instream nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations.  Asked what alternative to the nutrient management rules would protect the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake drinking water supplies, Reeder responded that drinking water treatment may become more expensive. The presentation suggested little DEQ commitment to defend watershed-based nutrient rules and a willingness to shift the cost of impaired water quality to communities using  Falls Lake and Jordan Lake as drinking water sources. Reeder’s presentation did not  address the impacts of a failure to reduce excess nutrients  on natural resources such as fisheries; recreational use of these rivers, lakes and estuaries; or compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Possible compromises.  Past studies of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rules suggest a need to fill gaps in the nutrient strategies, but do not provide a  scientific case for  abandoning watershed-based nutrient reduction strategies. Nearly seven years after final adoption of the Jordan Lake rules, opponents have not identified an alternative approach to protect drinking water  and meet Clean Water Act requirements.

At the same time, the  EMC’s recent riparian buffer report  identified potential buffer rule changes to ease the burden on property owners while maintaining the buffer’s  water quality benefits.  The legislature could also look at the possibility of  authorizing cost-sharing arrangements to allocate some of the upstream cost of water quality improvements to  the  downstream communities that will benefit. The idea surfaced briefly during development of the Falls Lake and Jordan Lake rules, but wasn’t pursued at the time.