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).

EPA Proposes to Take Away State Discretion on Antidegradation Analysis

Posted on October 14, 2013 by Patricia Barmeyer

One basic premise of the Clean Water Act is that EPA sets minimum standards but allows the States some latitude, in some areas, to design their own programs to meet their own needs.  One area where the States have traditionally been allowed flexibility is the antidegradation analysis required for any new or expanded discharge, to assure that high quality waters are not degraded.  However, in a notice published September 4, EPA is proposing to amend the federal antidegradation rule to require a review of alternative treatment levels for every permit and to require selection of the “least degrading alternative” in each case.  The proposed rule would have a dramatic effect in Georgia, and perhaps in some other states. 

The current antidegradation rule--both the federal rule and the Georgia rule--provides that the quality of high quality waters shall be maintained unless “allowing water quality is necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area….”  In Georgia the longstanding process, approved by EPA, is that the state Environmental Protection Division determines whether the proposed discharge is “necessary” by considering any no-discharge alternatives, such as land application.  If the no-discharge alternative is not feasible and the agency concludes, after public input, that the proposed discharge has significant positive economic or social value, then EPD considers the antidegradation analysis complete.  The agency then proceeds to apply the water quality regulations to determine effluent limitations and other permit conditions. 

Under EPA’s proposal, the antidegradation analysis would mandate a consideration of a full range of alternatives that could prevent or minimize the degradation that would result with the proposed activity, so long as they are “practicable.”  As proposed, this would apply not only to industrial dischargers but also to POTWs, even though the Clean Water Act clearly provides for less stringent technology for public facilities.  The result would be to require substantial expenditures on additional controls even if they are not needed and even if they will produce negligible water quality benefits. 

This very issue has been the subject of debate and litigation in Georgia for the past ten years.  It has enormous implications, because Georgia has declared that all its waters are “high quality” and subject to the Tier 2 requirements.  The environmental community in Georgia has long argued that the determination that a proposed discharge is “necessary” must be supported by a demonstration that the facility, even a POTW, has employed the highest level of treatment that is technologically and economically feasible.  In their view, if a facility can implement better controls, it must, without regard to a cost-benefit analysis and whether or not the lower standard would have any impact on water quality.  The Georgia experience counsels against EPA’s proposal to impose a “one-size-fits-all” antidegradation analysis on all 50 states.

Alaska Courts Clarify Application of Antidegradation Procedures

Posted on April 8, 2013 by Eric Fjelstad

Courts in Alaska issued two decisions upholding agency practice in carrying out antidegradation review under the Clean Water Act.  The federal court concluded that adoption of water quality standards does not, itself, require antidegradation review.  In the second case, a state court concluded that guidance may be developed to implement antidegradation regulations and need not be promulgated as a regulation provided it does not contain substantive criteria.

In Native Village of Point Hope v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska native and environmental organizations challenged EPA's approval of the State of Alaska's adoption of a site-specific water quality criterion ("SSC") for total dissolved solids ("TDS").  The SSC was challenged on a number of grounds, including on the basis that neither the State of Alaska nor EPA analyzed the SSC under the relevant antidegradation policy.  The issue before the U.S. District Court for Alaska was whether antidegradation review applied to the adoption of water quality standards ("WQS") or, conversely, only when WQS are translated into permits through effluent limitations.  In a case of first impression in the federal courts, the court ruled for EPA, holding that agencies are not required to undertake antidegradation review for the adoption of WQS; the obligation is only triggered when a WQS is incorporated into a permit through effluent limitations.

In Alaska Center for the Environment v. State of Alaska, environmental organizations challenged the State of Alaska's adoption of antidegradation implementation procedures through guidance, arguing that the procedures should have been promulgated as regulations.  As background, several NPDES permits in Alaska were withdrawn by EPA in the face of arguments from environmental organizations that the State of Alaska lacked antidegradation implementation procedures.  To address this alleged deficiency, the State of Alaska developed a guidance document  which EPA found was consistent with EPA's own antidegradation regulation.  The primary issue in the litigation was whether the State of Alaska was required to promulgate the guidance in the form of a regulation or whether it was permissible rely upon guidance to implement its regulations.  In a decision that turned largely on the State of Alaska's Administration Procedures Act, the court held that it was appropriate for the State to develop the guidance to implement its regulatory program, reasoning that the guidance did not add substantive requirements to existing regulations.

The Georgia Court of Appeals clarifies the antidegradation rule, at least in Georgia

Posted on February 5, 2013 by Patricia Barmeyer

The Clean Water Act’s antidegradation rule has been a fertile ground for dispute and litigation in Georgia, as elsewhere.  A recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, 734 S.E 2d 242 (Ga. App. 2012), has interpreted the Georgia version of the Rule and provided some clarity for POTWs and others seeking NPDES effluent limits. 

Georgia’s Antideg Rule is identical to the federal rule and provides that in the case of a proposed discharge to high quality waters, that quality shall be maintained unless allowing lower water quality is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development,” and water quality to protect existing uses is assured.

The Rule is not a model of clarity, to say the least, and has been subject to varying interpretations.  EPA has chosen not to provide more specific direction and has, on multiple occasions, reiterated that it is up to the States to decide how to interpret and apply the Antideg Rule, through each State’s implementation procedures.  

Georgia EPD’s implementation procedures interpret the rule to require a determination whether the proposed new or expanded discharge is “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development….”  If it is determined the discharge is “necessary,” that is, that a no-discharge alternative is not economically feasible, then EPD proceeds to consider the application and to impose permit conditions based on the applicable technology-based standards and in-stream water quality standards. 

In contrast, the environmental groups, and an Administrative Law Judge, have taken the position that the Antideg Rule requires EPD to consider whether “allowing the lower water quality resulting from the permitted discharge is actually necessary.”  That reading led the ALJ to conclude that, without regard to cost or benefit, the permit limits for the POTW must be set at the lowest level that is technologically feasible, so long as the permittee can afford it.  As interpreted by the ALJ, the antidegradation analysis would be not just the beginning of the analysis of a proposed new discharge, but also the end point.  According to that view, the antideg analysis would ask, not just whether the discharge is justified, but also, what is the lowest limit that is feasible.  Application of the Antideg Rule in this fashion would short-circuit all considerations of in-stream water quality standards and technology-based limits.  It would eliminate any distinction between POTWs and industrial facilities -- they both would have to meet the lowest limit that is technologically feasible that they can afford.

The Georgia Court of Appeals has now agreed with EPD’s reading of the Antideg Rule.  The  court held the rule requires only a determination whether lower water quality generally is necessary to accommodate economic or social development, not a permit-specific analysis of whether the exact effluent limits in the permit are necessary.  The opponents to the permit have asked the Georgia Supreme Court to take up the issue; a decision on the petition for certiorari is expected by mid-2013.

The Fate of Georgia EPD’s Antidegradation Policy is Muddier than Ever

Posted on February 23, 2012 by Richard Horder

Current federal law requires states to develop and adopt a statewide antidegradation policy to protect existing in-stream uses for high quality waters.  Georgia has done so under Rule 391-3-6-.03.  Georgia’s antidegradation policy describes what requirements must be met before the State issues a permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) and allows a wastewater point source (i.e. wastewater treatment plan) to discharge pollutants into surface waters.  However, in apparent response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (“EPA”) potential revision of its requirements for state antidegradation policies and an Administrative Law Judge’s recent ruling, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (“EPD”) published proposed amendments to its antidegradation policy in September 2011.

In its proposed amendments, EPD attempts to set out exactly when the antidegradation review process is triggered and what an applicant requesting a new or expanded point source discharge must demonstrate to obtain the permit.  EPD’s proposed rule and related guidelines explain the three basic steps as follows: (1) applicant may demonstrate that proposed discharge will not result in “significant lowering of water quality” (if satisfied, no antidegradation analysis is required); (2) if water quality is significantly lowered, applicant must demonstrate that discharge will accommodate important social or economic development; and (3) applicant must demonstrate that no reasonable alternatives exist that would provide the needed wastewater capacity without authorizing a new or expanded wastewater discharge into surface waters.  The key to this new procedure is the definition of “does not significantly lower water quality.”   Specifically, if the proposed discharge of a pollutant is 10% or less than the remaining assimilative capacity for that pollutant in the receiving stream, then the new discharge per se “does not significantly lower water quality” and no antidegradation analysis is required.  These amendments appear to respond to EPA’s concerns over EPD’s implementation of an antidegradation policy, and clearly appear to respond to the ALJ’s decision in Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. v. Forsyth County, Georgia

In September 2010, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Inc. (“UCR”) filed a petition challenging the issuance by EPD of an NPDES permit (“Permit”) authorizing Forsyth County to discharge 6 million gallons per day (“MGD”) of wastewater into the Chattachoochee River from the County’s existing waste water treatment facility and the new Shakerag facility.  The Permit set limits of 200 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (“cfu/100mL”) and 0.3 milligrams per liter (“mg/L”) for fecal coliform bacteria and phosphorous, respectively.  UCR claimed that the Permit, specifically the expanded limits, threatened the present and future health of the Chattahoochee River without EPD having undertaken a proper study, modeling or antidegradation analysis to show that the degradation of the river was necessary to accommodate Forsyth County’s economic and social development. 

In a decision found later to be overreaching, the ALJ held that any lowering of water quality in the receiving water triggers an antidegradation review and such review must analyze both the technical and economic feasibility of any alternatives, as well as a no-discharge permit alternative.  The ALJ made this conclusion in part by referencing EPD’s failure to define certain terms and therefore the ALJ adopted the EPA’s guidelines.  More surprising, the ALJ also adopted the permit discharge limits suggested by UCR which were much lower than those in the original permit or even those allowed for recreational waters by Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources.  The ALJ then remanded the permit to the Director of EPD for reissuance with revised monthly discharge limits of 23 cfu/100mL for fecal coliform bacteria and 0.08 mg/L for total phosphorous.   

Forsyth County appealed to the Superior Court of Forsyth County which reversed the ALJ’s decision finding that the ALJ had exceeded her authority.  The Court concluded the ALJ could not create an enhanced review by wholesale adoption of EPA guidelines nor set specific effluent limits.  EPD’s recent proposed amendments state clearly that effluent limits cannot be set pursuant to an antidegradation analysis, but only by EPD pursuant to Rule 391-2-6-.06.  The Court remanded the matter to the ALJ, ordering the antidegradation review standard be applied as codified in EPD’s implementing procedures without reference to EPA guidance documents. 

However, the battle is not over as UCR has appealed this decision to the Georgia Court of Appeals. As of this writing, both parties have submitted their briefs for review and oral argument is yet to be set.  In light of EPD’s recent proposed amendments, this decision is one to watch as the appellate court’s holding could have a significant impact on restrictions in future NPDES permits.