News Feature | March 16, 2017

Wisconsin Gets Wiggle Room On Phosphorus Pollution

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

milwaukee reg new

The U.S. EPA gave Wisconsin some leeway last month on the question of phosphorus pollution from sewage plants in a decision that will affect wastewater treatment across the state.

The agency essentially told Wisconsin that the state can set its own pace for phasing in tougher regulations on phosphorus discharges from point sources such as sewage plants, according to the Tribune News Service.

“The action has been in the works by the EPA for months and is not seen as influenced by the administration of President Donald Trump, who has promised to cut back on environmental regulations,” the report said.

Scott Laeser, water quality specialist with Clean Wisconsin, an environmental group, explained the timing of the decision. "Our sense is that it has been working its way through the system for a while," he said, per the Tribune News Service.

The backdrop is that Wisconsin decided to crack down on phosphorus in 2010, but state lawmakers passed a bill four years later giving sewage plants the option of delaying full compliance for up to two decades, according to the report.

The EPA condoned that action last month.

“According to the federal agency, Wisconsin's program is unique because instead of pursuing maximum feasible treatment of wastewater to remove phosphorus, point sources like companies and municipal treatment plants are required to optimize phosphorus removal by existing wastewater treatment and direct money to controlling non-point sources of phosphorus elsewhere in the watershed, such as farms,” Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Lawmakers backing the delay say it will be more cost-effective for industry.

Environmentalists say they will continue to watch how this issue plays out during implementation. Clean Wisconsin's Laeser noted that the phosphorus law “still allows regulated entities to adhere to the stricter limits and to use tools such trading water quality credits that provide financial inducements for polluting less,” Tribune News Service reported.

Protecting water sources was an impetus for the original phosphorus crackdown in Wisconsin. According to state environmental regulators, phosphorus pollution is already impairing a quarter of the state’s waterbodies.

“Dozens of waters statewide experience harmful algal blooms fueled by the nutrient, posing a health threat to people, pets and livestock. Over the past 3 years, 98 people have reported health complaints related to such blooms,” the state explains.

Image credit: "Milwaukee Wis," Ron Reiring © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/