No Clean Up in Sight for Stormwater Pollution: EPA Region 1 Leaves Open Decision for Future Action

Chris Kilian | @ChrisKilianVT

By the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) own estimate, tens of thousands of businesses currently fly under the radar of the Clean Water Act – meaning neither EPA nor the states regulate them. Instead these tens of thousands of businesses discharge dirty stormwater that pollutes our waters. This is not only illegal, it is harmful to humans and wildlife.

In an effort to force these businesses to change their polluting ways, last summer, CLF and our partners, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and American Rivers, filed a petition with EPA to hold these polluters accountable and address the issue of stormwater runoff at a regionwide level. In a disappointing move, on March 11, Region 1 of EPA wrote to CLF and its partners that it would neither grant nor deny the petition, instead committing to address the problem one waterbody at a time.

In essence, the petition identified polluted waters throughout Region 1 (the New England States) and presented evidence that stormwater carried pollution from existing commercial, industrial and institutional sites to those polluted waters. The Clean Water Act requires that such sources of stormwater pollution be regulated, but the truth is that these sites are not held accountable for the toxins they discharge along with stormwater runoff. We asked EPA to issue permits requiring these kinds of sites to clean up their stormwater discharges, using the agency’s “residual authority” under the Clean Water Act.

Right now, the burden of cleaning up after these thousands of polluting businesses rests with city and town governments – and, by extension, taxpayers. It is absolutely critical that these commercial, industrial and institutional pollution sources are required to bear their fair share of the clean-up responsibility. Our city and town governments can’t, and shouldn’t, do it alone. Why should taxpayers be subsidizing pollution clean up at big box stores, malls, car dealerships, and private universities? Our petition was targeted at assisting cities and towns by assuring that polluters pay for the problems they cause either directly, or by paying money to local utilities to implement clean-up measures. Unless there is a regulatory requirement to drive investment in pollution controls, these polluters have no incentive to do their part – and they haven’t been.

Finally, there is no question that EPA needs more staffing and resources to regulate these sites. There are real pollution consequences to the indiscriminate budget-cutting inflicted on EPA by politicians that support polluters over public health and safety.

So, while Region 1’s decision to not grant the petition is disappointing, we are encouraged that EPA Region 1 did not deny the petition outright. In response to the petition, EPA Region 1 has begun evaluating watersheds (the area that drains into a river or lake) throughout the region to consider further regulatory requirements. This means that instead of tackling the problem for the entire region now (as we requested), EPA is on a path to approaching the problem one polluted water body at a time. With tens of thousands of sources polluting 1,711 waters throughout New England, can we afford to take the slow path set forth by EPA? Will these waters ever be restored to places we can fish and swim, and that support wildlife?

CLF remains committed to reversing stormwater pollution and will continue to fight for clean water throughout New England. In the near term, we will work with EPA as they implement the review process announced last week—and to advocate for a responsive process that acknowledges the urgency of the region’s stormwater runoff dilemma.

This post was co-written by Chris Kilian, VP and Director, CLF Vermont and Clean Water and Healthy Forests, and Ivy Frignoca, Staff Attorney.

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