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.