In less than a year, Idaho is expected to be able to issue, monitor and enforce its own pollution discharge permits. If all goes to plan, it will be the 46th state to gain what’s referred to as “primacy” or “delegated authority” under the Clean Water Act.
Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality held a joint public hearing Monday at the Idaho Falls Public Library, the first of five being held around the state this week. The hearing was lightly attended, mainly by representatives of area municipal wastewater facilities.
The federal program in question is the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. The program regulates so-called “point sources” of pollution discharge, pollution sources including industrial operations, municipal wastewater treatment facilities, stormwater systems and concentrated feedlots. It doesn’t regulate other water pollution sources, such as agricultural runoff.
Idaho first decided to seek Clean Water Act primacy in 2014, when the Legislature unanimously passed a bill directing DEQ to begin the process. Idaho is one of only four states that haven’t yet gained primacy. The others are New Mexico, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
“The way the national pollution discharge elimination system was envisioned was that ultimately each state would build their own program and administer the system,” EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre said. “In some states it’s taken longer than others.”
The program works by issuing discharge permits to point-source polluters. Those permits often involve caps on the amount of pollution that can be contained in discharged water, requirements for best management practices and management plans to reduce pollution, or some combination of those measures.
“It is the authority to issue and monitor compliance and enforce discharge permits,” said Mary Anne Nelson, program manager of the Idaho Pollution Discharge Elimination System, which has been established to take over the federal program in Idaho.
Though the state will have its own authority to issue such permits, it won’t mean that the state can reduce water quality standards or allow more pollution, Nelson said. That’s because the Clean Water Act requires states to enforce standards that are equally stringent, if not more so, than federal standards.
EPA will review and note objections to permits issued by the state. DEQ would then have to amend those permits to address the feds’ objections, or the EPA could intervene to issue its own permit with its own rules. If the state fails to enforce permits, EPA would have the ability to enforce them itself.
But Nelson said the general trend with other states has been for state agencies and the EPA to have constructive relationships, and the EPA rarely intervenes directly.
Having a state-level agency with primary authority to issue, monitor and enforce permits would offer a number of benefits to those with point-source discharge permits, Nelson said.
“From the view of the regulated community, they’re looking forward to having somebody local they can deal with,” Nelson said. “There are efficiencies we can put in play to speed up the process. There is a very significant backlog in Idaho.”
Only one in five permits in Idaho is current, according to EPA’s latest backlog report. The other four are delayed in the approval process. By contrast, three-quarters of Washington permits are current, as are two-thirds of Oregon permits.
Nelson said inspections also will be faster, because DEQ will station inspectors throughout the agency’s six regions. The Idaho Falls Region includes Bonneville, Teton, Madison, Jefferson, Fremont, Clark, Butte, Custer and Lemhi counties.
While EPA administered the program, inspectors often had to be dispatched from as far as Seattle, she said.
“We will have control of our own waters and the protection of those waters,” Nelson said.
Idaho is on track to take control of the first portion of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System in July 2018. At that time, Idaho will take the reins in domestic wastewater treatment facilities as well as the Pretreatment Program, which regulates industrial activities that discharge into municipal wastewater and stormwater systems.
“We’re supportive of this change and look forward to working with the Department of Environmental Quality in this new capacity,” said city Public Works Director Chris Fredericksen, who oversees Idaho Falls’ wastewater and stormwater systems.
Remaining portions of the system will be taken over by Idaho in phases, with completion expected by 2021.
EPA is seeking public comment on the transfer until Oct. 10. Comments can be submitted to IdahoNPDEScomments@epa.gov.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.