Legislative Wrap-up I: Water Quality

July 30, 2013:  A summary of legislative action on water quality-

Budget-  The final budget directs the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to combine programs in the Division of Water Quality (DWQ)  and the Division of Water Resources DWR) and reduces the budget for the reorganized programs by $2 million.  The $2 million cut amounts to a 12.4% reduction to the combined programs. The budget also make two specific  program cuts  that reduce appropriations for water resource and water quality programs by another $735,257.  Total reductions may go even  higher than $2.7 million if water resource/water quality  programs also share in the  2% department-wide reduction required by  the final budget.   Although both the Division of Water Resources and the Division of Water Quality deal with water, the two have very different responsibilities and little overlap in functions; it  will be  difficult for  the reorganized programs to absorb another 12.4 % cut  without hurting program delivery.

Division of Water Quality (DWQ) has responsibility for preventing and reducing water pollution in the state’s rivers, lake, streams and groundwater supplies.  By delegation of authority from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DWQ  issues federal Clean Water Act permits to wastewater and stormwater  dischargers. DWQ also issues state water quality permits for animal waste management systems, injection wells, and for land application of waste.

Division of Water Resources monitors water supply – the amount of water in rivers, lakes, streams and aquifers rather than its quality. DWR has responsibility for state and local water supply planning; drought monitoring and drought response; and approval of  water transfers from one river basin to another (for example, taking water from an intake on the Neuse River to provide drinking water to a city  in the Cape Fear River basin).  The Public Water Supply section in DWR enforces the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulates drinking water systems to ensure that the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink.

Both divisions have river basin planning programs –  DWR water supply plans  use data on water use to model for future water supply  and DWQ  water quality plans track data on pollutant levels,  identify sources of  pollution and provide a foundation for addressing water  quality  problems.  The two types of planning complement each other, but neither can take the place of the other.  It will be important to continue to have strong water quality and water supply planning programs if the state is to have a scientific and technical basis for good water policy decisions.

The budget will test DENR’s  ability to continue to deliver good science, timely permit reviews, compliance assistance, and enforcement with fewer resources. The department will also have to keep an eye on the effect of reduced state appropriations on  federal grants supporting programs in the two divisions. The state receives a significant amount of  federal grant money to support activities required under the delegated Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act programs.  Those grants require a certain level of state “match” money — which is often provided in the form of state-funded positions in those programs.

Jordan Lake –  Legislation delays further implementation of the Jordan Lake Nutrient Strategy for three years  (Senate Bill 515).  The General Assembly had already delayed  the original Jordan Lake compliance dates for reducing  the amount of  nitrogen and phosphorus in wastewater discharges (until 2016) and for implementing new development stormwater programs (until 2014). The practical effect of the bill will be to  push those dates out three more years.  A number of local governments in the Jordan Lake watershed have already started implementing  local stormwater ordinances and can continue with those programs. The purpose of the delay is to allow the state to “[explore]  other measures and technologies to improve the water quality of the Lake”.  A related budget provision  earmarks   $1.35 million from the 2013-2014 appropriation for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund  for a pilot project to test the use of technology to improve water quality in Jordan Lake.   The budget provision describes the technology to be tested very specifically in three pages of bill text and seems  to direct funds to a particular product.  Both in committee and on the floor of the House, legislators identified the technology as SolarBee— a technology used to aerate water tanks and raw water reservoirs.  The bill exempts the pilot project from normal state contract procedures, which means DENR will not be required to advertise for bids.

Prospects for the success of the pilot project are already in doubt. A  prominent North Carolina scientist, Professor Emeritus Kenneth H. Reckhow of Duke University, has said that aeration technologies are not effective in large water bodies like Jordan Lake.  Even if the  technology can improve in-lake conditions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  has put the state on notice that  in-lake treatment cannot substitute for pollution reductions required under the Clean Water Act (7_10_2013 Letter to Rick Glazier re B Everett Jordan Reservoir TMDL-1).  If EPA holds to that position, the technology  will fail its primary purpose — which is to relieve upstream communities in the Jordan Lake watershed  of the need to  invest in wastewater treatment plant upgrades and stormwater controls on new development.

Groundwater (and possibly coal ash) – Section 46  of  House Bill 74 (Regulatory Reform Act)  seems to narrow DENR’s ability to address groundwater contamination caused by a permitted waste disposal site.  When the state issues a  permit for land application of  waste or for  waste disposal in a landfill, the permit sets a groundwater compliance boundary. Some degree of groundwater contamination will be allowed inside the compliance boundary,   but the permit holder cannot cause groundwater  standards to be violated outside the compliance boundary.   The new language in House Bill 74  continues to allow the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to set compliance boundaries by rule and by permit, but creates  a presumption that the compliance boundary will be the property line. (By comparison, landfill permits have  generally set the groundwater compliance boundary at 250 feet from the actual waste disposal area.)

The bill then goes on to limit the circumstances in which  DENR can require  “cleanup, recovery, containment, or other response” to groundwater contamination inside the compliance boundary. Before requiring any action inside the compliance boundary, DENR would have to show that the groundwater contamination: 1. has already caused a violation of water quality standards in nearby surface waters or can reasonably be predicted to cause a water quality standard violation; 2. presents an imminent threat to the environment or to public health and safety; or 3.causes a violation of groundwater standards in bedrock (which seems to mean contamination of deep groundwater).

The presumption that the property line will be the compliance boundary  will likely create pressure on the EMC to allow much larger compliance boundaries  than in the past. Expansion of the compliance boundary carries with it the possibility of  larger areas of groundwater contamination. The new law also makes it more difficult for  DENR   to require  a permit holder to take action inside the compliance boundary –even to contain or reduce the flow of contaminated groundwater off site.   DENR could only require steps to contain contaminated groundwater by showing that the groundwater contamination had caused –or will cause — a specific water quality violation or an imminent threat to health, safety or the environment. The fact that the contamination has moved beyond the compliance boundary (and perhaps already migrated off  the property and toward a river or lake) will not be enough. The clear risk will be that  acting only  after a problem already exists will create a larger and more expensive problem to remedy in the future.

The provision appears to be linked to an ongoing controversy and threatened litigation over groundwater contamination and seeps from ponds where coal-fired power plants have disposed of coal ash. The Catawba Riverkeeper has filed a notice of intent to sue under the Clean Water Act over contamination from two coal ash disposal sites — a  Duke Energy  coal ash pond associated with the Riverbend Steam Station and a Progress Energy coal ash pond in Asheville. The Duke Energy coal ash pond is located on the banks of Mountain Island Lake and near a water intake for the City of Charlotte.  Monitoring around the coal ash pond has detected contaminants in groundwater that exceed groundwater standards, but the Division of Water Quality has not yet decided whether corrective action will be necessary. The Riverkeeper’s complaint claims that contaminants from the coal ash are reaching the lake in seepage from the impoundment and through a groundwater connection to the lake. The House Bill 74 language means that groundwater violations alone –even beyond the compliance boundary — would not necessarily require  steps  to  contain  an ongoing flow of contaminated groundwater to the lake.  DENR would first have to show that the groundwater contamination is causing or will cause an actual water quality standard violation in the lake or  an imminent threat to health, safety or the environment.

Regulatory Reform – More on regulatory reform in a later post, but House Bill 74 includes a requirement that agencies review and readopt existing rules of “substantive public interest”   every ten years.  The bill defines “substantive public interest” so broadly that it will  cover  every environmental rule of any real substance. The state’s Rules Review Commission will set the initial schedule for review of rules, but the bill directs the commission to schedule surface water and wetland standards for review in the first round of rule review.

Miscellaneous – This post only covers the most significant water quality legislative. House Bill 74 contains a number of other minor changes, including technical amendments to the laws on permitting animal waste management systems and an exemption from riparian buffer requirements for agricultural ponds.

Failed Water Quality Legislation – One major change did not happen. The N.C. Homebuilders Association had pushed legislation to eliminate state water quality permitting requirements for wetlands that do not fall under federal Clean Water Act permitting jurisdiction. An earlier post provides some background on the difference between federal and state wetlands jurisdiction.  The language first appeared in a Senate farm bill (Senate Bill 638), but was dropped from the bill once it reached the House. The Senate agreed to the change — possibly because farmers already have broad exemptions from wetland permitting requirements. During the last few days of the legislative session, the exemption language popped up again  in a Senate committee substitute for House Bill 938. The House sent the bill to committee and never took it up for a concurrence vote. The bill will still be eligible for consideration next year when the General Assembly reconvenes in May.