The Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, chaired by U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-OH), held a hearing this morning to review EPA's proposed integrated planning and permitting regulatory prioritization effort under the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, or "Clean Water Act."
As our nation's existing wastewater infrastructure continues to age, municipalities across the U.S. are increasingly facing pressure to address their wastewater infrastructure needs. Old and deteriorated infrastructure often leaks, develops blockages, and fails to adequately treat pollutants in wastewater. In recent years, numerous other regulatory issues also have become national priorities, and are placing additional burdens on municipalities. For example, EPA has initiated a controversial rulemaking to establish a potentially far-reaching, burdensome, and costly program to regulate stormwater discharges. EPA has also begun pressing the states and local governments to address nutrients pollution, which could lead to many municipalities having to install and operate, at great expense, nutrient treatment and removal technologies at their wastewater treatment plants. These requirements will add an additional layer of regulatory requirements and economic burdens that our communities will have to face.
"Each of these EPA regulatory programs are being managed in a "stovepipe,' with each program imposing its own requirements on communities without regard to what any of the other programs are doing," said Chairman Gibbs. "But regulators need to realize that their unfunded mandates do not just force local governments to pay more. Local small businesses, schools, hospitals, and citizens struggling economically also face increased user rates or taxes that they can ill afford. In our current economic climate, this is unacceptable.
"It is time to truly give our communities the flexibility they need to prioritize their water quality requirements and address the huge unfunded costs associated with the growing number of mandates stemming from EPA water rules and enforcement actions, Gibbs continued. "I am hopeful that today's hearing will start moving us away from a "one size fits all" mandate and enforcement approach to an integrated regulatory planning and permitting approach to help EPA regional officials and State and local governments better prioritize Clean Water Act regulatory requirements while protecting the environment in a cost efficient manner."
Municipalities are very concerned about the impacts the unfunded federal mandates have on local governments' ability to meet compliance obligations, and have been urging EPA officials to limit the massive costs of complying with agency wastewater and stormwater requirements, especially given municipalities' dwindling revenues due to the economic downturn. EPA recently announced that it plans to create a new integrated regulatory planning and permitting approach to help EPA regional officials and state and local governments in integrating and prioritizing Clean Water Act regulatory requirements.
Hon. Jim Suttle, Mayor of the City of Omaha, testified on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Mayors: "Every morning mayors and responsible local government officials wake up as "criminals" in the United States by definition of EPA's enforcement strategy. It doesn't matter if the mayor was elected 10 years ago or took office yesterday; they are, by definition "criminals'. Why? Because their wastewater systems have sewer overflows, primarily as a result of a storm event- a "natural act', often referred to in contracts as an uncontrollable circumstance.
"The overflow is itself a violation of the Clean Water Act, therefore the Mayor responsible for the system is not in compliance with the Clean Water Act," Suttle continued. "If only Mayors had the money required to prevent sewer overflows they could escape this automatic violation of the Clean Water Act. But they do not have the resources to do so. The chosen enforcement mechanism is an extraordinary legal remedy usually reserved for the most intractable cases of egregious violations of the Clean Water Act. But EPA has set it as the default regulatory mechanism.
"Using enforcement actions as the default option sends the message via the mass media to our citizens that mayors are not trustworthy, and that they condone water pollution. It is hard to identify any other federal administrative policy that has done so much to damage the intergovernmental partnership between federal and local elected officials and it should be ended immediately," Suttle concluded.
Mr. Carter Strickland, Jr., Commissioner of NYC Environmental Protection also testified: "Of particular interest to DEP is EPA's commitment to review its application of the Combined Sewer Overflow Policy and requirements for covering drinking water reservoirs under the Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2 rule). EPA has already deferred the implementation of the LT2 rule in New York City, which would require a $1.6 billion concrete cover over a 90-acre reservoir -- a project that our evidence shows would produce no public health benefit. It is critical that EPA follow through on its commitment to a prompt review of the 35 mandates in its review plan, and we believe that this Subcommittee can provide a valuable service in overseeing that effort. And EPA could better coordinate the efforts of its enforcement office, which are all too often independent of its program offices, such as the Office of Water. The integrated planning framework that EPA has proposed -- and its recent flexibility with respect to CSOs, green infrastructure, and the LT2 rule -- is a promising start to bridging the gap between federal enforcement, scarce funding, and local goals, and to prioritizing our investments in environmental improvements. We can and must spend our money wisely."
Mr. Todd Portune, Commissioner of the Hamilton County, OH Board of Commissioners added: "As an elected official, I have a responsibility to my constituents that their sewer rates are wellspent and return the best possible results for the dollar invested. Because of this approach, we are working hard locally to identify an alternative to that investment to present to EPA that would return stormwater to area streams and use "green infrastructure' to control stormwater, with the goal of saving money in both construction and long-term operation and maintenance costs. We estimate that a "green infrastructure" approach could save our ratepayers as much as $1 billion over the life of the program, while producing the same or better results quicker. When my constituents are footing the entire bill those are important considerations. Absent a compelling reason against using a "Green Build' approach, it is difficult if not impossible to justify the expenditures called for in our consent decree."
"Across the nation, affected communities recognize the need to effectively manage their stormwater and improve water quality, particularly at a cost affordable to local taxpayers," Portune continued. "We understand that ignoring wet weather issues, such as combined sewer overflows and stormwater runoff, can contribute to damaging floods, extensive erosion and the release of pollutants into water bodies. Yet, given the tremendous costs associated with traditional grey infrastructure (e.g. stormwater retention tunnels) to control wet weather events, communities must be allowed to prioritize investing their limited resources in the most cost-effective, accountable solutions that can result in the greatest immediate water quality benefits for local watersheds."
More information on today's hearing, including witness testimony and video, can be found here.