Category Archives: Drinking Water

GenX: The State Enforcement Case

November 14, 2017.  An earlier post discussed some of the issues surrounding detection of a perflourinated compound known as GenX  in the Cape Fear River and in water systems using the river as a drinking water source. On September 7, 2017, the  Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)  issued a Notice of Violation and filed a legal complaint against the Chemours Company alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act and state groundwater rules related to GenX. This post looks at the specific allegations in the state enforcement case.  ( A copy of the entire complaint can be found on  DEQ’s GenX  webpage.)

One piece of background information —  Dupont  began manufacturing GenX at the Fayetteville Works in 2009, but transferred the operation and associated environmental permits to the Chemours Company in 2015.  The sequence of events surrounding GenX begins under Dupont management, but the enforcement case names only the Chemours Company — the current owner and permit holder — as defendant.

The enforcement case against Chemours makes two basic claims:

1. Chemours violated the Clean Water Act by discharging GenX to the Cape Fear River under a water quality permit that did not authorize any discharge of GenX.  The state claims neither Dupont nor Chemours  told DEQ that wastewater discharged from the Fayetteville Works to the Cape Fear River would contain GenX and other perflourinated compounds.   According to the complaint,  state water quality staff  understood that the GenX manufacturing plant opened in 2009 would use a “closed loop” system and dispose of all wastewater off-site.   In fact,  a consent agreement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Dupont under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)  only allowed manufacture of GenX  under conditions requiring Dupont to effectively eliminate GenX from both the wastewater discharge and air emissions associated with the manufacturing process.

The complaint alleged that Chemours,  in applying for its most recent National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit under the Clean Water Act,  did not tell DEQ that other operations at the Fayetteville Works generated wastewater containing GenX as a byproduct. (The implication is that Dupont had also failed to disclose the presence of GenX  as a byproduct when applying for earlier water quality permits.) Chemours discharged wastewater from those operations to the Cape Fear River.

DEQ alleges Chemours violated the Clean Water Act by failing to tell state permit writers that  wastewater from the Fayetteville Works contained GenX (and other perflourinated compounds) and by discharging GenX  to the Cape Fear River under an NPDES permit that did not authorize discharge of those compounds.

2. Chemours  violated state groundwater standards.    According to the DEQ complaint,   Chemours’ hazardous waste permit has required groundwater monitoring since at least 2003 and included sampling for PFOA (the older perflourinated compound replaced by GenX ).  After detection of PFOA  in the Cape Fear River in 2015, DEQ required supplemental groundwater monitoring to determine whether groundwater at the Fayetteville Works could be the source. It isn’t clear from the complaint whether the hazardous waste permit required monitoring for PFOA from the beginning and expanded the scope in 2015 or first required PFOA in 2015. DEQ did not specifically require monitoring for GenX until August of 2017. The initial sampling detected GenX in 13 of 14 monitoring wells on the grounds of the Fayetteville Works.

Under state rules, the  groundwater  standard for any contaminant that does not  occur naturally is the lowest measurable level  (the “practical quantification level” or “PQL”) unless the rules set a higher standard based on evaluation of health and environmental risk. Since GenX does not occur naturally and state rules set no other standard, the allowable concentration of GenX would be the PQL of 10 nanograms/liter (equivalent to 10 parts per billion).  The 2017 monitoring detected levels of GenX ranging from 519 ng/ltr to 61,300 ng/ltr. All five wells located adjacent to the Cape Fear River had levels of GenX exceeding 11,800 ng/ltr. DEQ found the test results documented widespread groundwater contamination on the Fayetteville Works site exceeding  both the 10 ng/ltr groundwater standard and the threshold for human health effects  identified by the state Dept. of Health and Human Services (140 ng/ltr level).

Status of the enforcement case.  The DEQ complaint asked, in part, that Chemours immediately stop any discharge of GenX and related compounds to the Cape Fear River.  On September 8, 2017 (the day after filing the enforcement case), DEQ entered into an agreement with Chemours to resolve the discharge issue. Under a partial consent agreement,  Chemours agreed to continue voluntary measures undertaken early in the summer to prevent discharge of process wastewater containing GenX to the Cape Fear River.  The partial consent agreement also required Chemours to take similar steps to prevent discharge of two other perflourinated compounds from the “single source of significance” of those compounds at the Fayetteville Works.

The partial consent agreement did not resolve all potential violations at the Fayetteville Works.  The consent agreement did not address any of the groundwater standard violations alleged in DEQ’s September 7, 2017 complaint. DEQ also expressly reserved the right to take additional enforcement action in the event of future unpermitted discharges or violations associated with other chemicals. In fact, DEQ issued a new Notice of Violation to Chemours today based on a previously unreported spill at the Fayetteville Works. That NOV  alleges that Chemours violated its NPDES permit by failing to notify DEQ of an October 6, 2017 spill of dimer acid flouride ( a precursor to GenX) from the manufacturing line.

Still to come. With respect to the groundwater violations, DEQ’s September complaint asked the court to order Chemours to:

♦ Remove, treat or control any source of perflourinated compounds at the Fayetteville Works that could contribute to groundwater contamination. Consistent with state groundwater rules, that  would need to be done under a plan approved by DEQ.

♦ Fully assess the extent of groundwater contamination and develop a plan to address the groundwater contamination. (Again, both the assessment and corrective action plans would be subject to DEQ approval).

It does not appear that Chemours has an approved groundwater assessment plan yet and the groundwater corrective action plan can only be developed once the assessment has been done. In the meantime, DEQ has directed Chemours to provide an alternative source of drinking water to 50 households near the Fayetteville Works whose water supply wells have been contaminated by perflourinated compounds.

DEQ’s September complaint focused on actions necessary to stop the  discharge of GenX to the Cape Fear River and address groundwater contamination,  but state law also authorizes DEQ to assess civil penalties for these violations. The maximum civil penalty for each violation of state water quality laws or rules is $25,000 and if a violation continues over a period of time, state law  authorizes DEQ to assess daily penalties.  (N.C. General Statute 143-215.6A.) The actual penalty amount per violation depends on a number of factors set out in the law, including the extent of harm and whether the violation was intentional. In the case of a continuing violation, DEQ would also have to decide what time period merits daily penalties. DEQ usually develops the penalty assessment separately from legal action to obtain compliance and has not yet proposed penalties for the Chemours violations.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Reforming Riparian Buffers Out of Existence

May 7, 2015.  Yesterday, the N.C. House approved House Bill 760 (Regulatory Reform Act of 2015) after adopting several amendments. House Bill 760 has  attracted a lot of media attention because of  the renewable energy provisions.  Less attention has been paid to part of the bill that will significantly weaken use of riparian buffers to reduce water pollution.

An earlier post  described the original riparian buffer provisions in House Bill 760. By amendment,  the House changed the provision on measurement of riparian buffers adjacent to coastal wetlands.  The new language requires the buffer to be measured from the normal water level, recognizing that some coastal wetlands regularly flood on the tides. The bill continues to have confusing language on  local government authority  to adopt riparian buffer ordinances outside of the river basins and watersheds covered by state buffer rules. Amendments  improved those provisions a bit,  but I am not sure even the amended bill  allows for all of the circumstances in which a local government may need to adopt a buffer ordinance to meet state and federal environmental standards.

But in what may be the most under-discussed section  of House Bill 760, the bill  still creates an exceptionally broad exemption from riparian buffer rules that apply in the state’s nutrient impaired river basins and watersheds. None of the amendments  to House Bill 760 narrowed the scope of the  buffer exemption.  In  areas covered by state nutrient sensitive waters (NSW)  buffer rules, the bill exempts all tracts of land platted before the buffer rules went into effect — even if the property could be developed for its intended purpose in compliance with the buffer requirement. (There are already exemptions and variances that cover previously platted lots that cannot be developed in full compliance with the buffer requirement.) The only condition on the exemption:

Other than the applicable buffer rule, the use of the tract complies with either of the following:

a. The rules and other laws regulating and applicable to that tract on the effective date for the applicable buffer rule set out in subsection (a) of this section.

b.The current rules, if the application of those rules to the tract was initiated after the effective date for the applicable buffer rule by the unit of local government with jurisdiction over the tract and not at the request of the property owner.

The conditions  don’t narrow the exemption  much — if at all.  Enforcing (a)  requires someone in the present to  determine whether use of the property complies with laws and rules in effect as much as 15 years ago.  And (b) appears to be the “Get Out of Jail Free” card that allows a property owner to claim the exemption based on meeting all current local ordinances other than the buffer rule. Unless  I am missing something, the property owner can just opt out of the riparian buffer requirement as long as a development project meets other current standards.

The exemption applies whether the riparian buffer rules are enforced by the state or by a local government with  delegated authority to enforce the  buffer requirements.  The exemption also seems to apply to both undeveloped properties and to properties already developed and currently in compliance with the buffer requirements.  If so, owners of developed properties would be free to clear vegetation and create new encroachments in the buffer. (Failure of the bill to distinguish between developed and undeveloped properties in applying the exemption criteria may have led to some unintended consequences —  although the exemption language is so aggressively broad,  I am not sure that is the case.)

The buffer  rules are  part of  broader  water quality restoration plans designed to meet  federal Clean Water Act requirements. The Clean Water Act requires the state  to adopt a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) —  a cap —  for any pollutant causing impaired water quality. A number of state  water bodies, including the Neuse River estuary, Falls Lake and Jordan Reservoir,   have had impaired water quality due to excess nitrogen and phosphorus.   For those river basins and watersheds, the nutrient management rules provide the underpinning  for  TMDLs that set nitrogen and phosphorus reduction targets.

North Carolina ‘s longstanding  policy has been to share the burden of pollution reduction among all of the major nutrient sources so the rules include tighter controls on wastewater dischargers; measures to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus leaving agricultural lands; and stormwater controls and riparian buffer requirements to reduce nutrient runoff from developed areas.  Each set of nutrient management rules reflects a long negotiation  involving  all of the  interests  affected — local governments, agriculture, landowners, real estate developers, environmental organizations — to balance the pollution reduction burden.

The House Bill 760 buffer exemption has the potential to upset the balance of the nutrient management plans and jeopardize the state’s ability to meet nutrient reduction targets in the TMDLs.  Understanding the impact of the exemption will require the answers to a number of questions yet to be asked or answered in the legislative debate:

1.  How many properties in each nutrient sensitive  river basin or watershed potentially qualify for the exemption and what percentage of riparian area  could be affected?

2.  How much nutrient reduction has the Division of Water Resources credited to protection of the riparian buffers in the approved TMDLs?

3.   Would the exemption affect the state’s ability to meet nutrient reduction goals for these impaired water bodies?

4.  Would the state have to ask for more nutrient reductions from other sources (such as wastewater treatment plants and agricultural operations) to make up the difference?

The bill now goes to the Senate, which has more often been the starting point for legislation to  limit use of stormwater controls and riparian buffers to restore water quality in impaired waters.

Environmental Issues in the Courts

October 26, 2014.  Some recent state and federal court decisions dealing with   environmental controversies in North Carolina:

Cape Fear River Watch, et al v. Environmental Management Commission. An earlier post provides background on the issues in the case. In  brief,  several environmental organizations  appealed a 2012 decision by the  N.C.  Environmental Management Commission  (EMC)   interpreting state groundwater rules to give  older, unpermitted waste disposal facilities the same groundwater remediation  options available to  permitted waste disposal facilities. All of the coal ash ponds in N.C would be considered “unpermitted” waste disposal facilities and  Duke Energy intervened in the  Cape Fear River Watch case to support the EMC  decision.

In March, Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway reversed part of the  EMC decision. Judge Ridgeway  interpreted groundwater remediation rules to require  facilities permitted before December 30, 1983  to  immediately remove the source of any groundwater contamination.  The decision has significant implications for coal ash ponds and old, unlined landfills where the waste material disposed of in the facility often turns out to be the contamination source. Under Judge Ridgeway’s interpretation of the rules,   waste material causing groundwater contamination would have to be immediately excavated and removed.  Although state rules allow the use of other (potentially less costly) measures to control groundwater contamination,  pre-1984 ash ponds and landfills would not have any option other than removal of the waste.

Duke Energy appealed Judge Ridgeway’s  decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals.  But before the Court of Appeals could take up the case, two things happened to alter the course of the litigation.  First,  the General Assembly enacted legislation  intended to moot the  Ridgeway decision. Section 12 of Session Law 2014-122 (the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014)  amends a groundwater statute to direct the EMC to require remediation of  groundwater contamination at a waste disposal facility without regard to the date  the facility had been permitted.  Legislators acknowledged that the provision was intended to reverse  Judge  Ridgeway’s interpretation of  the groundwater  remediation rules  as applied to facilities permitted before  December 30, 1983. As a practical matter, the new law allows DENR to approve an alternative means of controlling groundwater contamination associated with a  coal ash pond or pre-1984  landfill but does not guarantee approval.

Then,  on October 10, 2014,  the N.C. Supreme Court issued an  order removing  Cape Fear River Watch v. Environmental Management Commission from the Court of Appeals docket  to  the Supreme Court docket.  The Supreme Court removed the case on its own motion, surprising the parties and their lawyers.  (The court  issued similar orders in four other civil cases at around the same time.)  The court’s action  has no recent precedent and little precedent  in the court’s history. The one-paragraph  order offered no explanation for removal of the case to the Supreme Court.  The next step in the Cape Fear River Watch case will now be the filing of briefs in the  N.C. Supreme Court.

City of Asheville v. State of N.C. and Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County.  In 2013, the General Assembly enacted a law transferring the City of Asheville’s water system to the  Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County.  Session Law 2013-50,  drafted  to apply only  to the City of Asheville water system,  had the unprecedented effect of transferring the system’s assets  (infrastructure and a 17,000 acre watershed) and debts (over $67 million in water bonds) to a new entity without the city’s consent and without compensation.  Two earlier posts, here and here, provide background on the legislative action and constitutional issues raised by the law.

In June, N.C. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning issued an order concluding that Session Law 2013-50 violated several provisions in the  N.C. Constitution. Among Judge Manning’s findings:

♦ The law violated Article II, Section 24  of the N.C. Constitution which prohibits the General Assembly from adopting  certain types of legislation  to apply in  only one jurisdiction in the state. Judge Manning concluded Session Law 2013-50 violated  constitutional  prohibitions against local acts relating to “health, sanitation or the abatement of nuisances”  and local acts regulating  nonnavigable streams.  Although  Session Law 2013-50 did not mention the City of Asheville or the  Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County  by name,  it described water systems affected by the law  in a way that only applied to the Asheville system.  As a result, Judge Manning found the law to be an unconstitutional  local act addressing  health and sanitation (operation of a drinking water system) and regulation of nonnavigable streams.

♦  The law violated Article I, Section 19 by transferring the Asheville water system to a different entity without the city’s consent and without any rational basis. Article I, Section 19, known as the “law of the land” clause of the N.C. Constitution, has been interpreted to require both due process and equal protection. Judge Manning found Session Law 2013-50 violated the clause by depriving the City of Asheville of property without any  rational basis, suggesting a due process violation and expressly finding a denial of equal protection.

♦ Other sections of  Judge Manning’s  order concluded that Session Law 2013-50 violated Article I, Section 19 and Article 1, Section 35 (a broad reservation of rights) by taking city-owned property and by doing so without providing compensation for the property.

One key to the court’s decision:  operation of a  water system is considered to be a proprietary rather than a governmental function. Proprietary functions don’t involve peculiarly governmental powers and could also be carried out by a nongovernmental entity. Other examples of proprietary functions would be  operation of an electric utility, a recreational facility  or a sports venue.   With respect to proprietary functions,  Judge Manning concluded that  local governments have  the same constitutional protection against  uncompensated taking of property as a nongovernmental entity.

Judge Manning’s order did not address the city’s argument that the law also unconstitutionally interfered with contracts between the city and bondholders.  The state, throughout the Attorney General’s Office, indicated an intent to appeal the decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals. A final decision by the appeals court would not be expected for about a year.

Erica Y. Bryant, et al v. United States, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, October 14, 2014.  The plaintiffs  had sued the United States government seeking compensation for health problems allegedly caused by exposure to contaminated drinking water at the Camp Lejuene Marine Corps Base near Jacksonville,  North Carolina.  A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in another North Carolina groundwater contamination case, Waldberger v.  CTS, Inc.,   held that the state’s 10-year statute of repose barred a lawsuit alleging injury and property damage caused by groundwater contamination filed more than 10 years after the  last act contributing to the contamination —  even though the plaintiffs first learned of the contamination much later.  (You can find more on the Waldberger decision in an earlier post. The same post also includes additional background on the contamination problem at Camp Lejuene.)

The N.C. General Assembly responded to the  Waldberger decision  by enacting a law excluding claims for property damage and personal injury related to contaminated groundwater from the 10-year statute of repose. See Session Law 2014-17.  The law was written to apply to both pending cases and cases filed after its enactment. In the Bryant decision, however, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the new law could not retroactively apply to pending cases. The appeals court treated the 10-year statute of repose as a sort of property interest benefitting (in this case) the U.S. government. The court ruled  that the state legislature could not retroactively remove that benefit.  The decision turned, in part, on the court’s conclusion that Session Law 2014-17 changed rather than clarified the state’s prior law.

The 11th Circuit decision seems to leave the Camp Lejeune plaintiffs without any legal remedy for long-term health effects allegedly caused by exposure to the contaminated drinking water.

Ecological Flows: Round 3

June 30, 2014. Last week, the House approved a new  version of  House Bill 1057 (originally a study of interbasin transfer issues).  The House  added a new section requiring the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to study the method used for establishing minimum stream flows necessary to protect stream ecology  — or “ecological flows”. In the meantime, the bill would prevent the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) from developing river basin hydrologic models based on the recommendations of an ecological flow study just completed in late 2013 — work the  General Assembly itself directed in 2010 legislation.

The state’s Division of Water Resources (DWR) has been  working on  river basin hydrologic models for more than a  decade. The models turn information like  water volume; seasonal flow;  user demand (such as drinking water intakes); and permitted wastewater discharges  into a tool for predicting how water supply will  respond  to different conditions.  Federal relicensing of North Carolina’s hydropower dams prompted development of some of the earliest hydrologic models;  those models became  the basis for new hydropower license conditions.  DWR has completed models  for most of the state’s major river basins; the piece missing from the models has been a placeholder for  water needed to maintain aquatic ecosystems.

State and federal permit reviews for large water supply projects  (like reservoirs and new drinking water intakes) have long required analysis of impacts on aquatic life as well as downstream water users. The analysis has generally been done by the permit applicant on a project by project basis.   Session Law 2010-143 required DENR to characterize the ecology of the state’s river basins; identify the flow needed to maintain the integrity of those ecosystems;  and incorporate the “ecological flow” into each  river basin hydrologic model.     S.L. 2010-143 did not give the “ecological flow” component any regulatory effect; the law simply set in motion a process for looking more systematically at the impact of stream flows on aquatic ecosystems. Even though the law had no immediate regulatory impact,  it immediately encountered opposition from some municipalities  — led by the City of Raleigh —  out of concern that development of ecological flows would  lead to greater limits on public water supply projects.

As required under S.L. 2010-143,  DENR  convened a science advisory board to  recommend a  method for identifying the minimum stream flow necessary to maintain ecosystem integrity in each of the state’s river basins.  The science advisory board included representatives of agriculture, local government, electric utilities, conservation organizations and both state and federal regulatory agencies. The advisory board’s 2013 report titled “Recommendations for Estimating Flows to Maintain Ecological Integrity in Streams and Rivers in North Carolina” just became available in November 2013. The report recommends a   minimum “flow-by” (the percentage of  flow that remains in a stream after allowing for withdrawals ) of 80-90%.  Based on the recommendation, DENR intends  to use 85% flow-by as a planning tool, but will not  change  existing permitted flows or individually determined flow regimes.  DENR  has also indicated  that  more data will be needed before implementing other recommendations in the report. You can find a DWR presentation on use of the science advisory board’s report here .

House Bill 1057  appears to reject outright the work done by the science advisory board and requires the  EMC to do a new review of methods used to establish ecological flows — again based on the provisions of  S.L. 2010-143. The bill also allows the EMC to  create another scientific advisory panel. It isn’t clear what would be accomplished other than a further delay in consideration of ecological needs in river basin wear supply modeling.

In some ways, the ecological flows controversy parallels the earlier (successful) effort to limit use of sea level rise projections in state planning.  Opposition to possible policy changes no longer waits for the actual policy discussion — instead, the opposition has organized to limit use of the  underlying scientific or technical information.

Recycling Wastewater for Drinking Water — Without a Permit

June 19, 2014. In one of many quick changes over the last few legislative days, Senate Bill 163 (“Protect Landowner’s Water Rights”)  entered the telephone booth of the House Environment Committee yesterday and emerged as an entirely different bill entitled “Reclaimed Water as Source Water”.  The House adopted the new version of S 163 today,  making a significant change to state water quality  and drinking water laws with little debate.

The bill endorses the use of highly treated wastewater, classified under  state water quality rules as “reclaimed” water, to supplement drinking water supplies.  The policy makes sense  under the right conditions.  Treated wastewater  already indirectly supplements  drinking  water supplies; many wastewater treatment plants discharge to streams and rivers that also serve as  water supply sources for downstream communities. State reclaimed water rules also allow direct  use of reclaimed water for many non-potable purposes, including  landscape irrigation, easing demand on the drinking water supply.

Senate Bill 163,  as adopted by the House, goes further and  for the first time allows reclaimed wastewater to be used to directly supplement a drinking water supply. The problem — the bill appears to allow a water system to add reclaimed wastewater to a drinking water reservoir without a water quality permit.  If that is the  effect of the bill, it represents a significant change in the way the state protects the quality of drinking water supplies and  likely conflicts with the federal Clean Water Act.

Under the bill,   “notwithstanding any other provision of law, a local water supply system may combine reclaimed water with source water treated to provide potable water supply”  in an impoundment controlled by  the  water system.  The bill does not define “impoundment”,   but under state drinking water rules an “impoundment” means a reservoir.  That interpretation would also be consistent with  other  Senate Bill 163 language describing the addition of reclaimed water  as occurring before the water goes to the water treatment plant.

An impoundment used as a  public water supply source  would  usually be considered a “water of the state” under water quality laws. Most impoundments  have  been created by damming a river or stream segment to store water for  water supply and continue to release water through the dam to maintain downstream flows.  Wastewater  (even treated wastewater) can only be discharged to a water of the state under a  permit that  insures the discharge  will not result in violation of a water quality standards.  Under G.S. 143-215.1, it is unlawful to:

Cause or permit any waste, directly or indirectly,  to be discharged to or in any manner intermixed with the waters of the State in violation of the water quality standards applicable to the assigned classification.

An impoundment used as a drinking water source has specific water quality standards (adopted in state rules) to protect its  use as a water supply. Discharge of treated wastewater to a water supply source can be allowed,  but only  under permitted limits.  Unfortunately, the “notwithstanding” language in Senate Bill 163  seems to sweep away both the requirements of state  water quality permitting laws and the N.C.  Drinking Water Act.  Nothing in the bill itself requires the addition of reclaimed wastewater to be done under a water quality permit  or in compliance with water quality standards for public water supplies. Instead, the conditions in the bill read like a self-contained set of standards that rely on a 20% limit on the proportion of reclaimed water to total water produced by the impoundment  and a minimum  5-day holding time in the impoundment as a substitute for meeting water quality standards.

If — as it appears — the bill allows discharge of reclaimed water to a “water of the state” without a permit, it also  conflicts with federal  law. Many impoundments that are  “waters of the state”  would also be considered “waters of the United States” under the federal Clean Water Act.  Federal law  makes it unlawful to discharge a pollutant into waters of the United States without a Clean Water Act permit — a requirement that state law cannot waive.

Senate Bill 163 will now go back to the Senate for approval or disapproval of the new  House version of the bill.  If the Senate rejects the House rewrite, the bill will have to go to a conference committee to work out the differences between the two chambers.

If the House did not intend to allow the discharge of treated wastewater to a water supply reservoir without meeting state and federal water quality laws, it would be  helpful to clarify  the bill  before final adoption.