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The Brewing Storm(water)

by David Wagger

I do not know about you, but it has finally arrived. No, not March Madness. The report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Improving the EPA Multi-Sector General Permit (MSGP) for Industrial Stormwater Discharges”.  (Yes, March Madness IS better.)

So, how did we get here? I’ll make it brief (really). After the U.S. EPA issued the 2015 MSGP, several environmental groups filed legal challenges to it, claiming that certain parts of it violate the Clean Water Act. Industrial groups intervened to represent their interests, because neither the challengers nor the EPA was going to do so. A legal settlement was reached in August 2016. The settlement allowed the 2015 MSGP to take effect as finalized but required the EPA to agree to several things prior to the 2020 MSGP. One thing was commissioning the report recently issued by the National Academies. Another was (or is) incorporating the report’s recommendations into the draft 2020 MSGP, expected to be released this year for public comment.

From my own perspective, the process that the National Academies undertook to gather information for development of the report was reasonably balanced. The report’s website details the public meetings held late 2017 and early 2018 and the stakeholders who presented (including myself).

Now that we have the report, what does it mean? At this point, I can tell you more what is in it (and not in it) than I can say what it means in practice. As expected, the National Academies made many recommendations, not all of which affect the recycling industry and some of which are potentially beneficial. This is not to say that the recommendations do not contain some challenges, but it seems clear that the Committee heard what industry had to say. Given the reasons that led to this report, I think that this report could have been more challenging.

I note that the report does give the recycling industry (Sector N1) an indirect compliment: “In contrast Sectors M, N1, and P determined [before the first MSGP in 1995] that pollutant testing was, in fact, necessary, with Sector N1 making that determination for the highest number of pollutants” (p. 28). Our industry did it right the first time, but as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. In connection with this, one recommendation is a minimum set of benchmark parameters for all sectors—TSS (Total Suspended Solids), COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand), and pH (well, pH)—as broad indicators of the effectiveness of stormwater control measures (SCMs). While only pH is new for Sector N1, some or all of these are new for some sectors, especially those sectors currently without benchmark monitoring, which may also end up with other new benchmark parameters.

While I will not list here all of the report’s major recommendations (see the report’s 9-page summary), I would like to point out some of their details, first the potentially beneficial ones. EPA should review (or even remove) the benchmark for iron because it is currently based on chronic (rather than acute) aquatic life criteria with little evidence of adverse impact. Permittees with repeated copper benchmark exceedances should be allowed to use the latest aquatic life criteria to evaluate site-specific water quality risk. Development of new numeric effluent limitations (i.e., enforceable limits) is not recommended because of insufficient information about SCM effectiveness. EPA should consider incentives to encourage stormwater infiltration or retention/use where appropriate because these minimize adverse impacts to receiving waters, while maintaining rigorous requirements to protect underlying groundwater. Protocols and training for storming sampling and analysis should be updated and strengthened. Use of composite sampling should be promoted (except for unstable parameters), and the monitoring period and sampling frequency should be increased to better assess SCM effectiveness. Under a new risked-based monitoring approach, riskier facilities would have more-intensive monitoring requirements. Lastly (here), EPA should enhance electronic data reporting and develop data management and visualization tools (some of this is already happening under a previous rulemaking).

Admittedly, these recommendations cover a broad range of topics. There will be a lot discussion across and among MSGP stakeholders (including EPA) about how these recommendations get incorporated into the draft 2020 MSGP. Although most of industry facilities are not covered by the Federal MSGP, states (with some exceptions) tend to eventually adopt its requirements into their general permits, so these recommendations are likely not that far removed from your operations. ISRI expects to play a role in that discussion, and I welcome your comments about these recommendations. Please stay tuned.

If you need any assistance with stormwater or any other environmental topic, please contact David Wagger, ISRI’s Chief Scientist / Director of Environmental Management, at (202) 662-8533.

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