USEPA Proposes Revisions to the Water Quality Standards Program Under the Clean Water Act

Posted on October 23, 2013 by Kevin Beaton

On September 4, 2013 EPA published proposed changes to its Water Quality Standards Rule at 40 CFR Part 131 (WQS Rule).  The proposal is styled “regulatory clarifications” but the proposal represents the most significant changes made to the WQS Rule in some thirty years.  The WQS Rule currently sets forth the minimum conditions that must be met in each State’s or Tribe’s water quality standards before EPA can approve them under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  Increasingly over the years, state water quality standard decisions have been the driver behind required stringent permit limits in NPDES Permits, TMDLs for impaired waters and lawsuits against EPA.  The proposed rule is mostly an attempt to codify exciting EPA guidance and practices to ensure national consistency and “transparency.”  Many of the proposed changes were generally discussed in EPA’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ANPRM) on water quality standards published in 1998 and many come from the Great Lakes Water Quality Guidance at 40 CFR Part 132.

First EPA is proposing to amend the use attainability analysis (UAA) requirements found in the current rule to now require a state or Tribe to identify the highest attainable use (HAU) and the water quality criteria to protect the HAU in any UAA.  A UAA is a structured analysis a State or Tribe can undertake to attempt to demonstrate to EPA that the so called “fishable and swimmable” uses required under the CWA are not attainable based on a number of factors.  These factors include low flows, natural or physical conditions, human caused conditions which cannot be remedied, dams, or because controls to achieve attainment would be too expensive.  At least in the Northwest, EPA have been very reluctant to approve UAAs because the agency has a “rebuttable presumption” that fishable uses and swimmable uses are attainable (some might call it an irrebuttable presumption) and implicitly that it is never too expensive to remedy water quality problems.  Requiring states and Tribes to also adopt a new HAU in connection with a UAA along with associated criteria may make the UAA an even less viable CWA off-ramp.

Speaking of off-ramps, the proposed rule also sets forth the conditions under which a state or Tribe can adopt “variances” to water quality standards for individual or groups of NPDES permittees.  Variances are merely referenced in the current WQS Rule and have been viewed as a “UAA lite.”  Variances are codified in water quality standards (subject to approval by EPA) and allow individual dischargers or groups of NPDES Permits to temporarily exceed water quality based effluent limits based on the same factors which justify a UAA.  EPA articulates in the proposal that it believes variances have been underutilized and therefore sets forth the conditions which the Agency will grant variances for an individual or groups of NPDES permittees.  (e.g. Demonstrate temporary unattainability, maximum timeline of 10 years and protect the HAU during the variance.)  Whether the proposal will lead to more variances may be doubtful.  EPA has typically been unwilling to approve variances for industrial or commercial dischargers (although they are more flexible with municipalities) because pollution controls to meet WQS are seemingly never too expensive.

As my colleague Patricia Barmeyer notes in her recent post, the proposed rule also proposes changes to antidegradation implementation procedures that are somewhat consistent with current practices and guidance by providing some flexibility in how states protect high quality waters and a specific requirement that states must first require dischargers to implement “practicable” pollution controls that minimize or eliminate any degradation to high quality before allowing the discharge.  “Practicable” is not defined but if this term is implemented in the same way as proving economic hardship in a UAA or variance then new and increased discharges could be subject to additional (and expensive) hurdles in going through antidegradation reviews.  Finally, the proposed rule addresses compliance schedules in NPDES permits consistent with current practice and specifies the conditions under which the EPA Administrator will make determinations that a water quality standard does not meet the requirements of the CWA.  Comments on the proposed rule are due on December 3, 2013 (unless an extension is granted).

Kentucky-Specific Water Quality Standard for Selenium

Posted on February 14, 2013 by Carolyn Brown

The Clean Water Act requires states, as well as Indian tribes, to review their water quality standards every three years.  The water quality standards include narrative and numeric criteria that differ based on the type of use designation for the particular stream.  Use designations include warmwater aquatic habitat, cold water aquatic habitat, primary and secondary contact recreation and others.  The Kentucky Division of Water has been engaged in the triennial review of the state’s water quality standards since early 2012.  In the latest development, the agency asked the legislative committee that reviews agency regulations to defer consideration of the rules for another month while the agency takes comment on a change to the state’s standard for selenium.

The Kentucky regulations address a number of changes to the water quality standards and included proposed deletion of the acute water quality criterion for selenium.  The proposal to delete the acute standard was based on findings that the current state standard, which was derived from USEPA guidance, was not based on sound science.  USEPA Region 4 commented on the proposed deletion and identified three options: (1) leave the current acute criterion in place and wait for release of any revisions to USEPA’s selenium criteria, (2) adopt the acute criterion from USEPA’s current national guidance, or (3) adopt an alternate criterion based on other scientifically defensible guidance.

In response, the Division conducted a survey of recent studies of selenium toxicity to aquatic species and determined that it was appropriate to develop state-specific water quality criteria for selenium.  The agency is proposing an acute criterion for warmwater aquatic habitat of 258 ug/L, with an alternate calculation option depending on the sulfate concentration that is present.  The proposed chronic criterion for warmwater aquatic habitat is 8.6 ug/g (dry weight) of whole fish tissue or 19.2 ug/g (dry weight) of fish egg/ovary tissue.  The analysis of fish tissue is triggered when the water column concentration of selenium exceeds 5.0 ug/L.  If the water column result is less than or equal to 5.0 ug/L, the water body is meeting is aquatic life uses.  If the water column result is greater than 5.0 ug/L, then the next step is to determine whether the site is attaining the fish tissue or egg/ovary tissue criterion.

Stay tuned as interested parties weigh in on the state’s proposed action.

OREGON TEMPERATURE WATER QUALITY STANDARDS UPHELD (SORT OF)

Posted on March 23, 2012 by Rick Glick

In a 50 page opinion issued February 28, Federal Magistrate Judge Acosta handed EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) a partial victory in Northwest Environmental Advocates v. EPA et al.  The decision upheld EPA’s approval under the federal Clean Water Act of the Oregon DEQ’s numeric temperature water quality standards, while rejecting certain narrative standards.  NWEA also challenged the biological opinions issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service and U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.  The Services concluded that the Oregon temperature and intergravel dissolved oxygen standards would not jeopardize listed salmonid species, and those agencies did not fare as well in the case.

Oregon’s temperature standards were adopted in 1996 and promptly attacked.  In 2003 EPA Region 10 adopted its own Temperature Guidance, and Oregon’s temperature standards were reformulated.  NWEA again found the revised standards wanting and brought the case at issue.  The judge upheld DEQ’s numeric temperature standards, despite evidence that the standards were less than optimal for fish, deferring to the scientific expertise of the government. 

The judge found fault, however, with narrative standards that deal with “nonpoint sources” of heat.  A point source is a discrete, end-of-pipe discharge to a waterway, whereas nonpoint sources are diffuse, such as runoff from a field.  The Clean Water Act regulates point sources through a permit program, while nonpoint source control is mostly aspirational, although it does direct states to develop best management practices and measures for controlling nonpoint source pollution.  Under the Oregon narrative standards, a nonpoint source that adopts “best management practices” is deemed to be in compliance. 

The court found that this formulation undermines DEQ’s numeric standards as it provides a substitute for actual compliance.  The same reasoning was applied to the so-called Natural Conditions Criteria, which provide that compliance is excused if natural conditions exceed standards.  The court found that such an exemption supplants otherwise lawful standards.
 
The court’s objections to the narrative standards notwithstanding, neither the Clean Water Act nor state law authorize direct regulation of nonpoint sources.  The narrative standards were Oregon’s attempt to address pollution from nonpoint sources without adopting a new regulatory program.  It seems the court reacted to the blanket exemptions provided in the rules, and it further seems that Oregon can revise them and pass muster.  The deference shown the agencies on the science suggests that the court will allow some leeway on language used to deal with nonpoint sources and the effects of natural conditions.

No such deference was granted to the federal fisheries services.  On remand they will have to prepare a new biological opinion that accounts for Evolutionary Significant Units (i.e. sub-groups of salmonids), potential for recovery, baseline conditions and cumulative effects.  Further, the Fish and Wildlife Service was chastised for considering factors other than the best scientific data available in formulating its opinion.  That is, FWS seemingly bowed to pressure to support the EPA Temperature Guidance, even though it believed that temperatures for bull trout provided for in the Guidance were not what FWS considered to be optimal. 

The net result of the many years of litigation over Oregon’s temperature standards is that Oregon’s approach, and EPA’s approval under the Clean Water Act, were largely validated.  Problems with narrative standards should be correctable.  Whether on reanalysis the Services find that the standards are protective of listed species, as required under the Endangered Species Act, remains to be seen.

Transboundary Water Quality Disputes -- What Once Was Old Is New Again

Posted on February 11, 2011 by Allan Gates

There is nothing new about transboundary water quality disputes under the Clean Water Act. Introductory classes on environmental law commonly trace the history of Supreme Court decisions arising from Milwaukee’s battles with Illinois over sewer discharges into Lake Michigan, the challenge Vermonters’ raised against New York paper mill discharges into Lake Champlain, and Oklahoma’s objections to a permit EPA issued to a sewage treatment plant in Arkansas. Given the length of time that the Clean Water Act program has been in place and the large number of instances in which upstream discharges drain into and therefore arguably affect water quality in downstream states, one would expect that most of the relevant legal questions would be well-settled. Recently, however, transboundary water quality disputes have arisen with increasing frequency.


Coal bed methane development in Wyoming has given rise to disputes with Montana over salinity impacts in the Powder and Tongue Rivers. Efforts by the state of Washington to protect dissolved oxygen levels in Spokane Lake have prompted a dispute over Washington’s attempt to impose wasteload allocations that would limit nutrient discharges by upstream sources in Idaho. Oklahoma’s efforts to restore the Illinois River to pristine scenic river conditions have resulted in recurrent and steadily intensifying disputes with agricultural interests on both sides of the border and point sources located predominantly in the headwaters on the Arkansas side. EPA’s imposition of nutrient water quality standards in Florida could have direct effects on discharges originating in Georgia; and the agency’s showcase multi-state TMDL for the Chesapeake Bay has recently precipitated challenges by state and national agricultural interests. In what undoubtedly is the most dramatic transboundary claim under the Clean Water Act, environmental groups have filed a petition with EPA asking the Agency to impose nutrient water quality standards and adopt TMDLs for the main stem of the Mississippi River, all of its tributaries, and certain related coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
 

These recent disputes have recurring themes that arise out of weaknesses or unresolved questions regarding the Clean Water Act program. The statute empowers each state to exercise sovereign independence in adopting water quality standards that apply within the state’s own borders (so long as minimum federal standards are met), but the statute does little to address or even give consideration to the interests of other states that may be directly affected by those standards. Transboundary disputes frequently involve situations in which the regulatory burdens fall disproportionately on interests in one state while the resulting environmental benefits are realized largely or entirely in another state, but the Clean Water Act does nothing to address questions of transboundary fairness. Transboundary disputes frequently involve regulatory decisions that have enormous financial and long term planning consequences, but the decisions are often based upon limited factual data, imperfect scientific analysis, and less than comprehensive computer modeling. The Clean Water Act offers no process for seeking to assure that the quality of the decision making will be commensurate with the gravity of the consequences at stake. Indeed, the program largely makes the magnitude of financial consequences simply irrelevant. Disparities between the magnitude of the consequences and the limited quality of analysis and data supporting the regulatory decision are particularly problematic when the regulatory decision is being made by one jurisdiction that has no political accountability to the other.


It is perhaps no surprise that most of the recent transboundary water quality disputes are arising out of efforts to regulate the discharge of nutrients. Nutrient pollution is the largest unresolved water quality issue nationally; and the adverse effects of excess nutrients frequently occur at locations far downstream from the original source. The fact that most of the current transboundary water quality disputes involve nutrient pollution probably makes the disputes even more difficult than normal to resolve. Nutrient pollution has no simple, universally accepted means of measurement. It is costly and time consuming to establish a clear causal link between a given discharge of nutrients and an observed adverse effect; and many of the most important sources of nutrient pollution are non-point sources which are beyond direct control under the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, this appears to be a recipe for increased frustration and controversy.
Transboundary water quality disputes may not be a new phenomenon, but it does not appear that we are any closer to finding a good way to resolve them.
 

Governor Manchin (D-WV) Sues EPA Over Failure to Issue Mining Permits

Posted on October 12, 2010 by David Flannery

On October 6, 2010, and at the direction of Governor Joe Manchin (D-WV), the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) filed a complaint against EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. The complaint alleges that two actions by EPA, requiring surface mine permit applications to undergo enhanced scrutiny and setting a new water quality standard based on conductivity, are unlawful and have brought the permitting process to a standstill. WVDEP is seeking a court order declaring EPA’s actions to be unlawful and enjoining their implementation.

 

WVDEP argues that EPA’s actions 1) are substantive rule changes that did not go through formal rulemaking required by the APA; 2) require the Corps to apply illegal presumptions during environmental assessments of new surface mine permits; 3) usurp West Virginia’s authority to implement its own water quality standards and effectively issue NPDES and SMCRA permits; 4) impose new water quality standards that are not based on sound science; and 5) have caused undue delays in the issuance of surface mining permits and threaten the supply of coal available for the nation’s energy needs.

 

Governor Manchin is in a hotly contested race for the US Senate in which his opponent is accusing him of being a "rubber stamp" for President Obama. Undoubtedly this action will be offered as a response to that criticism.