Environment

This Week in Pollution: DEQ, enviro commission still squabbling with EPA over impaired waters list

The Environmental Management Commission squeezed its denunciation of an EPA decision from six pages into two, but the message to the feds remained the same: You’re wrong.

For several months, the EMC, in concert with the NC Department of Environmental Quality, have been squabbling with the EPA over the scientifically sound way to determine if a body of water is “impaired,” aka polluted. If a body of water is polluted enough, it goes on a federal impaired waters list — the dreaded 303d.

Once a waterbody is on the 303d list  EPA then sets a Total Maximum Daily Load — the maximum amount of a pollutant a waterbody can receive each day and still meet quality standards. Using this benchmark, regulators can then work to reduce the pollutants. But that can be expensive, and thus it’s important for local and state governments not only to keep the waters clean, but to keep them clean enough to stay off the list.

Two questions are at issue in this case: 1) the number of samples necessary to determine the extent of the pollution; and 2) the acceptable number of times a sample can exceed water quality standards for toxic metals. (Geeky, yes, but an NCPW post from January details the nitty-gritty of the disagreement and environmental advocates’ support of the EPA’s methods.)

Based on what the EPA believes is sound science, 72 water-body/pollutants should be added to North Carolina’s list. In the state’s opinion, those waters are not impaired and shouldn’t be on the list.

On Thursday, the EMC approved a final draft of a letter to the EPA expressing its dismay with the agency’s refusal to accept the state’s version of the list: “The State respectfully, but strongly, requests EPA to re-evaluate its disapproval” of the list, the letter reads.

The tempest began in 2013, when EMC Commissioner Steve Tedder, a retired DEQ scientist, led the change in sampling methods. “It’s been used in environmental sciences programs for 25 years,” Tedder told NCPW in January of the state’s methodology. “It’s very solid, very sound.”

But since then, the EPA has scolded the state for the change in both the 2014 and 2016 listing cycles. States propose their 303d lists every two years.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources sent a separate letter also opposing the EPA’s methodology.

“What we want is concurrence from the EPA that our listing method is solid,” said Jeff Manning, chief of the DEQ’s Classifications, Standards & Rules Review Branch. “It will allow us to develop priorities for the next list, in good faith with the EPA.”

The Trump administration has yet to appoint an administrator for EPA Region 4, which includes North Carolina and several southeastern states. “We won’t physically send it until we have a name,” said EMC Chairman John Solomon.

“We’re not depending on EPA staff to filter it up,” added commissioner Kevin Martin. “We want to make sure it goes to the new administrator.”

V. Anne Heard is the acting administrator for Region 4. A highly politicized position, the job was vacant for nearly half of President Obama’s first term.

The next list is due in 2018, possibly before a new regional administrator is hired.

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