The new U.S. EPA guidance designed to rationalize city and county public works expenditures on Clean Water Act compliance is meant for localities such as Peoria, Ill. The city is in the midst of negotiations with the EPA on a consent decree covering combined sewer overflow (CSO) issues within Peoria and peak flow treatment issues within the sanitary district.

That is why Stan Browning, executive director, Greater Peoria Sanitary District, was so anxious to read the text of the final Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework the EPA published in June. The document gives new instructions to regional and state EPA offices on providing permit and enforcement leeway to local governments like Peoria when the local government proposes an “integrated” plan for handling such things as CSOs, sanitary sewer overflows, and advanced treatment of wastewater and water quality problems associated with stormwater runoff. Although the guidance only includes “municipal” in its title, it applies to the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit holder — which could include a county.

The EPA had published a draft last January, and then held public meetings around the country to get input from affected parties. The agency received considerable push-back from public works and other local government officials on a variety of issues, and made changes to the final document to address those concerns.

Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the Conference of Mayors, states, “The EPA has, with the issuance of this policy, opened the door to cooperation. It signals a modernization of the regulatory approach, and provides a foundation from which adversarial relations can now morph back into the intergovernmental partnership that cities value so much.”

But many others, including Peoria's Browning, criticize some elements of the Framework. The guidance implies that each city and county have a dollar figure they are able to spend to implement an integrated plan. That figure is based on a formula that takes the median household income of a city (say $30,000), multiplies it by 2% ($600), and then multiplies that by the number of households (say 50,000). That's $30 million — the total amount the EPA would expect the city to spend on Clean Water Act improvements proposed as part of an integrated plan.

“That would be a tremendous capital funding challenge for many cities that size. It would require a three- or four-time increase in the annual sewer bills the residents pay,” explains Browning. “Moreover, depending on local issues, this magnitude of expenditure may be well beyond measurable environmental and public health benefits.”

Browning is also concerned that the Framework includes no preference, much less a requirement, for EPA approval of an integrated approach within the context of permit approval, as opposed to as part of a consent decree. He prefers using a permit because a consent decree involves fines and penalties, and an implication that the publicly owned treatment works was negligent. However, permits are typically issued for five years and the document makes no allowance for stretching permit terms to match the reasonable, perhaps extended, time frames need to finish an integrated plan.

The American Public Works Association (APWA) mentioned those concerns and others after the EPA issued a draft Framework last January. Asked to what extent the final document assuaged the APWA's concerns, Julia Anastasio, director of sustainability at the APWA, says it made some small improvements in clarifying some of the shortcomings in the draft guidance. “EPA tried to provide additional information on adaptive management and the role it can play, provide more detail on the affordability questions, and better explain the balance between permitting and enforcement programs,” she adds.

“But there is still ambiguity with regard to how EPA and state regulators will apply and interpret the Framework,” says Anastasio. “Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. I'm sure as utilities begin to take advantage of the new Framework, EPA and regulated utilities will learn things that can help improve the process in the future.”

— Steve Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who covers regulatory issues, with a special emphasis on EPA.