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Public Comment Period for Draft Industrial Stormwater General Permit

By Tyler Rougeau

The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is now seeking public comment on its draft Industrial Storm Water General Permit (ISWGP). The comment period will last until April 20, 2007.

After the comment period expires, Ecology will issue a new permit to replace the 2002 ISWGP that currently regulates the discharge of pollutants into surface waters from general industrial activities. All together the permit covers 1,153 sites, 531 of which are in Ecology's Southwest region that includes Thurston County.

The ISWGP is essentially an industrial pollution permit issued by Ecology via the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) with authority delegated to the agency by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to the federal Clean Water Act and state Water Pollution Control Act, point source discharges to U.S. waters are lawful only if permitted. It is Ecology's responsibility to ensure the protection of water quality and aquatic life while issuing permits to pollute.

The draft ISWGP and a fact sheet are available online at http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/stormwater/industrial/index.html.

During this comment period the public is encouraged to attend a public forum (see box) to voice concerns and/or to write to Ecology at industrialstormwatercomments@ecy.wa.gov with specific recommendations. Broadly, Ecology is seeking comment on:

  • technical issues,
  • accuracy and completeness of information,
  • the scope of proposed coverage,
  • adequacy of environmental protection and permit conditions, or
  • any other concern that would result from issuance of the draft permit. -} -Ecology ISWGP Fact Sheet pg. 88

    Specifically, the draft ISWGP contains two sections for which Ecology is seeking comment: (1) benchmarks and action levels, and (2) corrective actions.

    How the Permit Enforces Water Quality Standards

    With the ISWGP Ecology requires industrial polluters (permittees) to conduct periodic sampling for certain pollutants, such as copper or fecal coliform depending on the type of industry discharging the effluent and/or the health of the receiving water. Each pollutant measured is given a benchmark level and actionable level, e.g. copper is given a benchmark of 11.9 micrograms per liter (ug/L) and an action level of 23.8 ug/L (for non-303(d)-listed/relatively healthy waters). Below the benchmark, the pollutants are thought to be relatively harmless. On the other hand, levels of pollutants found to be above the action level are known to be harmful.

    When a permittee is caught discharging pollutants above the actionable level Ecology initiates a four-level process through which the permittee is required to undertake corrective measures to stop the polluting discharges. This approach of benchmarks, action levels, sampling, and corrective actions is termed adaptive management.

    Importantly, adaptive management relies on Best Management Practices in lieu of numeric effluent limitations for discharges except when required for certain industries or to certain already critical waters. Environmentalists, such as Puget SoundKeeper Alliance, have criticized Ecology's omission of numeric effluent limitations arguing that "the benchmarks and BMPs approach to stormwater regulation is not effective in achieving water quality standards," according to a letter submitted to Ecology. In fact, state law requires Ecology to impose numeric effluent limitations when (1) "[ discharges ] have a reasonable potential to cause or contribute to violation of state water quality standards" and (2) "[ e ]ffluent limitations based on nonnumeric best management practices are not effective in achieving compliance with state water quality standards" [ RCW 90.48.555(3)(d) ].

    The question, then, is whether non-numeric effluent limitations are stringent enough to stop the continued deterioration of the aquatic environment. If they are not, then Ecology is derelict in its duty according to the Washington State Water Pollution Control Act. In its ISWGP fact sheet (pages 39-41) Ecology argues that (1) it doesn't have the resources to figure out what would be appropriate numeric effluent limitations for the sites covered in the permit; and (2) the non-numeric effluent limitations have not been given enough time to work since they have only been in effect since January 2005.

    Framing the Public Policy Debate

    At this point the discussion becomes daunting for the public at large because the average concerned citizen is not an expert in the field of water quality science. Generally, environmental advocates say that water quality standards are too lax to adequately protect aquatic wildlife such as salmon and industry advocates say that stricter standards will impose an unreasonable burden on businesses.

    For example, Puget Sound Keeper, in its comment to Ecology on the ISWGP, cites the National Marine Fisheries Service as saying only levels of copper below 5 micrograms per liter can be safely tolerated by salmonids. Even for 303(d)-listed waters, such as Budd Inlet, the ISWGP gives copper an action level of 9.6 ug/L.

    On the other hand, Weyerhaeuser, in its comment to Ecology, suggests further study before attempting to "force the majority of permittees into an ever more expensive effort to control total metals." Weyerhaeuser also recommends that Ecology "evaluate the reasonableness" of the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) benchmark and action levels for the timber industry, which the permit sets at 30 mg/L and 60mg/L respectively.

    According to Weyerhaeuser's letter, the benchmark level is not reasonable "given the traditional and necessary raw material storage/handling practices in the industry in Western Washington."

    The Need for an Engaged Public

    Because of the contentious nature of industry regulation for environmental protection, it is particularly important for the public to voice its support for an effective pollution elimination system. Public policy officials may be more likely require strict adherence to environmental protection provisions when they know that the public at large is behind their efforts to save our environment from further degradation and harm. It also helps to maximize the accountability of agencies such as Ecology when they know that the pubic is paying attention to what they're doing.

    Related to this, it is of particular concern that according to Ecology's own fact sheet, on page 37: "Based on site inspections...[ n ]o more than 10 percent [ of permittees ] would be considered in full compliance with all permit requirements." When expert sources are criticizing permit requirements as too lax to ensure environmental protection it is troubling to note that at best a mere 10 percent of permittees are in full compliance with the permit's requirements.

    Everyone has a stake in the future health of the environment, the question is whether we will do what it takes to ensure that future by taking the necessary actions to eliminate the discharging of pollutants into the environment.

    Tyler Rougeau has lived in Olympia for four years and currently works as a childcare worker at Margaret McKenny Elementary School. He has written for Works In Progress and the Guerrilla News Network. Tyler welcomes correspondence and can be reached at mailto:redwater@)riseup.net

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