Will we do something about runoff?
The Clean Water Act of 1972 required the cleanup of our lakes, streams and estuaries which were steadily becoming more polluted. EPA first attacked "point source" pollution by requiring discharge permits under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). These permits required cleaning up end-of-the-pipe pollution and improved water quality. However our waters continued to degrade and plenty of good data prove that stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution. Now EPA is attempting to limit or clean up runoff. New rules will impact most major developments and local governments, which must implement the new rules. We want to thank the NC Coastal Federation (NCCF) for allowing us to draw heavily on their article in the latest issue of the Coastal Review for the following discussion.
The EPA NPDES Phase II Storm Water Program is described in new rules issued December 1999. By March of 2003, communities covered under the program must apply for an NPDES permit to control storm water pollution. This is the same type “point source” wastewater discharge permit that has long been mandated for industries and sewage treatment plants.
Any coastal town or county where storm water is violating water quality standards is required to get a permit. If the State fails to identify communities that should be covered by permits, EPA rules provide a process by which any citizen can nominate a local government for permit coverage.
Once a permit is required, local governments are obligated to develop programs that: (1) Reduce the discharge of storm water pollutants to the ÒMaximum Extent Practicable; (2) Protect Water Quality; and (3) Satisfy the Water Quality Requirements of the Clean Water Act.
EPA requires storm water programs to include six key elements: (1) Public education and outreach; (2) Public involvement and participation; (3) Illicit discharge detection and elimination; (4) Construction site controls; (5) Post-construction storm water management; and (6) Pollution prevention and good housekeeping. All these are important, but two elements deserve special attention.
To comply with EPA's illicit discharge detection regulations, local governments must map all the storm water outfalls in their communities. These outfalls are defined as any ditch or culvert that discharges storm water pollution to surface waters such as a creek, sound or the ocean. Just like an industrial point source discharge, the quality of the storm water pollution flowing out of these pipes must now comply with downstream water quality standards.
EPA's "post-construction" rules obligate local governments to adopt development ordinances and local programs to assure that new development does not cause unacceptable storm water pollution.
In coastal communities, water quality standards prohibit the issuance of any NPDES permit that allows discharge of storm water pollution that adversely affects the harvest of shellfish.
Now, let's put all this together. Most coastal communities will probably be required to obtain a NPDES storm water permit. To receive a permit, coastal communities must identify all outfalls in their communities where storm water is currently discharged. They must also enact programs that control storm water pollution so that water quality is protected. No permit can be issued that authorizes a discharge of storm water pollution that could adversely affect the harvest of shellfish.
EPA provides some leeway in program compliance. The rules say that local governments are only expected to reduce the discharge of pollutants to the "Maximum Extent Practical" (MEP).
Permits can prescribe the Best Management Practices (BMPs) that must be carried out to comply with this MEP standard. However, these BMPs are limited to those known to be effective in achieving the requirements of the Clean Water Act - such as impervious cover limits, land use planning and natural buffers.
This MEP standard causes a lot of confusion. In intensely developed areas like downtown Wilmington, it is virtually impossible to fix water quality problems caused by storm water pollution. Our treatment technology just isn't good enough to restore water quality in heavily urbanized areas. Instead of requiring the impossible, the rules direct communities to carry out storm water pollution control programs that will at least result in water quality improvements. Do what's "practical" the rules require. Make the best of a bad situation.
Outside intensely developed areas, practical options increase dramatically for preventing storm water pollution from ever becoming a problem. In these locations, local governments will need to carry out programs that include BMPs such as: effective land use plans based upon land suitability analysis, limits on impervious cover, safeguards for wetlands, standards for landscaping, and protection of natural shoreline buffers.
Though it may not be practical to restore streams in heavily urbanized areas to their once pristine status, it is reasonable to expect local governments to carry out storm water control programs that prevent water quality from more deterioration and restore it where that is feasible. This means that areas with polluted waters don't get any worse, and locations with good water quality remain that way.
Local governments may feel that they are getting singled out by the Phase II program. However, there are similar EPA rules that require the same level of storm water pollution control for all construction sites one acre or larger, bigger cities, the NC Department of Transportation, and for military and government facilities.
Preventing storm water pollution has broad benefits. If we address this issue in the way that Phase II permits mandate, many of the growing pains experienced by coastal communities will be eased. Communities that protect water quality will have good land use planning, be resilient to coastal hazards, and be healthy and affordable places to live.
In conclusion, the Phase II NPDES storm water program looks great on paper with its powerful legal imperatives. But it is sure to fail if citizens do not get involved in its implementation and enforcement. Neither Congress or the NC General Assembly is allocating adequate funds for its administration–nor is it a high priority for state policy makers.
That's why the NCCF and other environmental groups are focused on making this new program work. Through stakeholder groups, public meetings and hearings, petitions for permit coverage, and lawsuits, we'll attempt to provide a level of public accountability that is needed to assure that federal and state water quality laws for storm water pollution are enforced.
The Phase II program could be the "silver bullet" that saves our coast from becoming irreversibly polluted by storm water. It provides both the map and the roads for getting to our objective of wisely managing our coast. But it will be hard to reach this goal, and we'll need help from all our concerned citizens. Especially, local governments must do a better job with land use planning and development of ordinances to protect our waters. The next item tells of recent developments in this area.
Land use planning.
Land Use Planning has always been a component of the Coastal Area Management Act. Done properly, it can be an effective tool for building communities that are pleasant to live in, have successful economic development and good water quality. The process has not worked and the Coastal Resources Commission, which approves land use plans for the coastal counties, has been developing new guidelines for preparing plans. The new guidelines will be presented at public hearings soon. The nearest one will be at 7:00 PM Wed., Sept. 5 at the Craven County Courthouse, 406 Craven St. New Bern. For more information, contact NCCF at 252-393-8185.
It is essential to improve our planning process if we are to meet EPA runoff requirements and preserve our local water quality.
Radio Island news.
Jim Stephenson of NCCF attended a LNG conference recently with support from Crossroads. He reports that there are a lot of companies wanting to build a number of LNG terminals. It is difficult to get an indication as to which, if any, of the proposed terminals will be built.
El Paso is continuing to evaluate the Radio Island site, are generally on the timeline we published previously and continue to seek commercial partners or users of LNG. They plan on full public discussion once they have determined if the site is suitable for an LNG terminal.
Bob Austin of Williston has joined the Crossroads Board. Bob is trained in biology and forestry and is a commercial fisherman.
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We were saddened by the recent death of John Elder, a long-time supporter and Life Member. John always had useful comments on our articles.