From The Editor | December 9, 2013

The Year In Water Regulations: What You Need To Know


By Kevin Westerling,

The steady march of water-related mandates was afoot in 2013, though a bit slow and meandering. The following is an overview of the EPA’s rulemaking progress over the past year.

Much like the legislative landscape, the U.S. government’s regulatory activities pertaining to water and wastewater have been characterized by delays and foot-dragging. That was the assessment from Dawn Kristof Champney, president of the Water and Wastewater Manufacturers Association (WWEMA), at the organization’s 105th Annual Meeting. While some water treatment professionals bristle at the prospect of new water-quality mandates, WWEMA typically favors the implementation and active enforcement of water regulations as a means to promote both innovation in the industry and greater protection of the environment.

Champney offered a review of the action — or inaction — of the U.S. EPA in 2013, with status updates on the would-be mandates. They run the gamut from stormwater to wastewater to drinking water, affecting both municipal and industrial operations.

Rules WITHDRAWN in 2013:

Expanded Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) Rule: The EPA has decided not to take the CAFO rule nationwide, or at least not yet. The proposed rule, which would bring more accountability to non-point sources of nutrient loading, has been shelved for the next five years. According to Champney, federal regulators will instead watch the progress of current nutrient-control strategies in the Chesapeake Bay to help inform future decisions. Come 2018, if no progress has been made in remediating the Chesapeake, the EPA could revisit CAFO Rule expansion.

EPA/Florida Nutrient Water Quality Standards: Though a withdrawn rule on nutrient standards doesn’t look like progress for water quality, in this case it is. The EPA was on the verge of setting numerical limits for Florida’s freshwater lakes and estuaries in lieu of the state coming up with their own, but withdrew the prospective rule once Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) came forth with a plan of action. Implementation of the FDEP standards is still on hold, however, pending the outcome of a court challenge issued in Florida’s Northern District.

“There is pressure being placed on the EPA to step in when the states don’t act,” said Champney. “And that can be a good thing.”

Coalbed Methane Extraction Effluent Guidelines: Produced water from coalbed methane (CBM) wells may contain an array of contaminants, including chloride, sodium, sulfate, bicarbonate, fluoride, iron, barium, magnesium, ammonia, and arsenic. However, the EPA has acknowledged the financial strain that strict regulation would impose on the CBM industry, which already has a shrinking market share due to the shale gas boom. In other words, installing the upgrades that would be necessary — likely reverse osmosis (RO) or partial RO with ion exchange filters — may put companies out of business. Thus the EPA is not pushing forward with this aspect of the still-pending rule on unconventional extraction.

Rules POSTPONED in 2013:

Water Quality Standards For Chloride/Selenium: The EPA has plans on establishing separate Water Quality Standards (WQS) for chloride and selenium, but both will be delayed until next year. The forthcoming standards aren’t binding, but they provide states with valuable information and science to establish their own total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) and formulate permit criteria for waterbodies. A WQS for selenium, chloride, and ammonia were all on the docket for 2013, but only the latter was finalized.

Post-Construction Stormwater Rule: Despite pressure from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the EPA has yet to complete this long-awaited rule. Once finalized, the rule could have major cost implications for newly developed or redeveloped sites, which will be required to incorporate stormwater treatment and handling into the project build.

In Champney’s address to WWEMA members — manufacturers of mostly “gray” infrastructure equipment — it was noted that the bill is expected to stress green infrastructure measures. The new schedule for publication of the rule is early 2014.

Drinking Water Contaminants: For the first time ever, the EPA is attempting to tackle a group of contaminants — carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — with a single rule, as opposed to regulating each contaminant individually. That effort is proving to be more technically complicated than originally thought, putting the rule on hold until at least 2014, and quite possibly longer.     

Another drinking water contaminant awaiting a final rule is perchlorate, and again the science involved was underestimated. Consequently, on recommendation of the EPA Science Advisory Board, finalization of a perchlorate standard was pushed to 2014.

The EPA also stepped away from finalizing revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, and the timeline for getting it done is undetermined. According to Champney, the price for compliance, should 11 million miles of lead service lines require replacement, could be as high as $75-100 billion. “That’s obviously not going to happen soon,” said Champney, in explaining why the EPA has opted for postponement.

Cooling Water Intake Structures Rule: Citing the government shutdown in October as reason for its failure to meet the latest deadline, the EPA promised a final action pertaining to the requirements of section 316(b) of the CWA no later than January 14, 2014. When it finally hits the books, the rule will have impact for roughly 1,500 industrial facilities, regulating the location, design, construction, and capacity of cooling water intake structures, so as not to harm the environment — in essence, to protect aquatic species.

Rules PROPOSED in 2013:

Electronic Reporting Rule: Hard to believe, but it has taken until now — or when the Electronic Reporting Rule is finalized — for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program to join the digital age.  The rule will require electronic submission of all NPDES data to a central database, allowing for more accurate and easily accessible data, which in turn enables better and faster decision-making. The rule, likely to take effect in 2014, is also hoped to boost compliance by giving transparency to permit discharge data.

Steam Electric Effluent Guidelines: In existence since 1984, the Steam Electric Effluent Guidelines, which govern the discharges of coal-fired power plants, are in the process of being revised. At WWEMA’s annual meeting, there was lively discussion about the implications of the rule, summarized by one member as “the death of coal as we know it.” Fundamentally, the proposed update would require that every plant capture and treat every source of water (runoff from impounded coal, for instance). Targeted contaminants include selenium, iron, copper, arsenic, and nitrate — the last of which was described as “unexpected” at the WWEMA meeting, especially to the strict standard of 0.13 mg/L. EPA-estimated compliance costs were reported to be in the (very broad) range of $190-800 million/year, with a compliance date of July 2017.  The difficulty in meeting both the standards and the deadline could spell the closing of 200 or more coal-fired power plants, according to WWEMA’s Mike Dimitriou, who has been following the proceedings.

Rules FINALIZED in 2013:

Vessel General Permit: Some rules did come to fruition in 2013, including the Vessel General Permit, which regulates incidental and ballast water discharges from commercial vessels greater than 79 feet in length. The new requirement, in effect on Dec. 13, will affect approximately 60,000 U.S. vessels and 12,000 foreign vessels.

Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR3): Though published in 2012, UCMR3 monitoring commenced in 2013, with occurrence data published in November 2014. Every five years, the EPA creates a watch list of compounds to consider for future rulemaking, and this is the third such round. While the previous two rounds resulted in no new rules, the word at WWEMA this year was that some new maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for drinking water are quite possible, even expected. The candidates include nitrosamines (a disinfection byproduct [DBP] of chloramination), strontium (a radioactive isotope), and chlorates (a DBP of sodium hypochlorite).

The EPA-rulemaking cycle may be slow at times, but it never stops — with twists and turns aplenty along the way. Stay tuned to Water Online for updates on the preceding rules and all that’s yet to come.