WATER POLLUTION:

EPA offers 'flexibility' for cities on sewer overflows

U.S. EPA finalized a policy yesterday intended to help cash-strapped cities facing expensive environmental mandates for cleaning up sewer overflows.

The final draft of the "Integrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework" is being hailed by both industry and environmental groups as a step forward in dealing with mounting financial obligations facing cities under the Clean Water Act.

But both camps say that how EPA implements the policy will be critical to evaluating its success.

Adam Krantz, director of government and public affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, a major water-utility industry group, called the framework "a very impressive effort."

"It's not the end of the discussion," he said. "We're still going to need to figure out to what degree we can find the appropriate level of flexibility and affordability. ... But we do think this offers a really strong first step in that direction."

The seven-page document outlines principles for letting cities structure plans for tackling multiple Clean Water Act obligations one at a time in an effort to reduce costs.

The new policy is EPA's response to cities struggling with multimillion-dollar -- or in some cases, multibillion-dollar -- tabs for repairing, expanding and upgrading sewer systems under enforcement agreements with EPA and the Justice Department.

At issue are antiquated sewers that overflow in heavy rains, dumping untreated wastes into waterways. Such systems pose an environmental threat in growing cities that have failed to maintain water infrastructure.

Cities say the required sewer upgrades and expansions are budget busters in a down economy.

Settlements struck from 2008 through 2010 in the long-running Clean Water Act enforcement campaign will require local utilities to invest a total of $9.6 billion in such pollution-control measures and pay $3.5 million in civil penalties, according to EPA data.

EPA released a draft of today's framework last November, after negotiations with the U.S. Conference of Mayors and other stakeholders (Greenwire, Nov. 2, 2011).

The final policy is similar to the draft. It allows individual cities to work with EPA to consider a broad range of compliance options and sequence them in a sensible way, said Larry Levine, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It also promotes green infrastructure -- retention ponds, rain gardens and roof gardens -- as cost-effective ways to limit pollution in downpours.

Levine praised EPA's move forward with the policy but said, "The devil is in the details, of course, and there is not a lot of detail in here. What it means is only going to become clear as they begin to apply it in particular places."

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