Proposed new state nitrogen and phosphorus standards for wastewater plants are under attack

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Here’s a report from Barbara Cotter writing for The Colorado Springs Independent. Click through and read the whole article. Here’s an excerpt:

The proposed regulations are meant to address a stronger nationwide push from the Environmental Protection Agency to cut the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus discharged from wastewater treatment plants into rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs. But opponents question the science used to support the need for the regulations, and warn that water bills could double or even triple for some Colorado ratepayers if municipalities are forced to upgrade their facilities.

Earlier this month, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments sent a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper urging him to block the proposed regulations. The same day, Republican state Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction introduced a bill that would essentially place a moratorium on the adoption of regulations.

“This action is not mandated by federal law, nor is it based on any demonstrated adverse environmental impacts occurring in Colorado waters from our facilities,” the PPACG wrote to Hickenlooper. “The cost of implementing such regulations on small and medium-sized communities will be staggering, and we ask for your intervention to stop this regulatory mandate.

Steve Gunderson, director of the Water Quality Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, defends the science, but acknowledges that compliance could be costly. However, he notes, only about 30 percent of wastewater plants in Colorado would be affected by the regulations, which are, at the outset, more lenient than what some environmentalists might consider ideal.

Mostly, he says, the state needs to act before the EPA steps in. “We continue to believe that is to Colorado’s benefit to start addressing the nutrients so it’s not forced on us by means of a lawsuit of the EPA dictating to us what needs to be done,” Gunderson says…

To [Tad Foster, a Colorado Springs environmental attorney specializing in water quality issues], the site-specific approach is ideal, but given the reality of the situation, he and the Colorado Nutrient Coalition are proposing that limits be imposed on phosphorus, not nitrogen, at least for the time being. “Why? Because the cost of doing total nitrogen is six times the cost of doing total phosphorus,” Foster says.

He estimates the cost to wastewater plants to control just phosphorus would be $635 million, compared with $2.46 billion to regulate both nitrogen and phosphorus. And that’s just to meet less restrictive standards. To go whole-hog with the “ultimate set” of restrictions for nitrogen and phosphorus would, according to varying estimates, cost from $20 billion to $25 billion.

Gunderson says the state is proposing regulations on both nitrogen and phosphorus for a reason. “Our science, and what we assert, is, you really have to address both of them,” he says. “If you address one and not the other, you’re not going to see a lot of progress. They’re both fertilizers; if you put nitrogen on your lawn and not phosphorous, your lawn will still turn green.”

But the proposed regulations do not impose the most restrictive limits, he says. “It starts knocking it down. We’re trying to find a way to start putting a dent in this thing,” Gunderson says…

Still, there’s fear among many communities that they’ll be socked with a massive bill. Like the PPACG, the Colorado Rural Community Coalition wrote a letter to Hickenlooper that was signed by 12 wastewater dischargers in El Paso County, expressing concern about the regulations. Gunderson says that about half of the opponents who have signed letters wouldn’t be affected by the current proposal.

Gunderson understands the opposition to the regulations, but says doing nothing is not an option. “I continue to believe that it makes sense to do this here, rather than having it forced upon us, which one day it will.”

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Charles Ashby):

Officials with the Colorado Water Quality Control Division say the new rules are needed to prevent even stricter ones from being imposed on the state by the federal government. At the same time, local wastewater experts say the proposed rules, known as Regulations 31 and 85, will do little to nothing to clean the state’s waterways. The issue centers on the amount of nutrients that end up in the state’s rivers and lakes. Having too many nutrients — nitrogen and phosphorus — causes algae to grow. That, in turn, saps oxygen from the water, creating so-called dead zones, places where nothing can grow and fish can live, said Steve Gunderson, executive director of the water division.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t mandating what Colorado is considering, the federal agency ultimately will impose something even more stringent if the state doesn’t act on its own, he said. “The EPA has been pushing for states to do something for quite a few years,” Gunderson said. “It is one of the nation’s biggest water quality challenges. (The nutrients) causes a water body to get choked. It will rob the water body of oxygen, and it will raise the pH, the level of corrosivity, in the water. It can adversely impact aquatic life.”[…]

The division has filed about 600 pages worth of rules and other accompanying documents with the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission that call for lowering phosphorus and nitrogen levels to virtually zero over the next 10 years. The commission is holding a public hearing on the rules in the spring, with an expectation of having them go into effect by June 1…

Eileen List, industrial pretreatment supervisor for the Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant in Grand Junction, said the city still is studying the proposed rules, but that it could cost as much as $24 million to comply with just with one portion of them. “When you get into Reg 85, there are impacts not just to wastewater facilities, but there are impacts to stormwater facilities as well as drinking water facilities,” List said. “This is where the city is still in the process of understanding the regulation.”[…]

So far, officials from 32 local entities have signed a letter complaining about the proposed rules, including the Clifton and Orchard Mesa sanitation districts, the Grand Valley Drainage District, the Battlement Mesa Metropolitan District and the towns of Rangely, Cedaredge, De Beque and Nucla. In the letter that is to be sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper by the end of the week, the officials say the regulations will cost all of them about $2 billion to be in compliance, and ask that he delay it until more scientific research can be done. “The state has not been able to show us that Colorado has a problem with nutrients,” said Michael Wicklund, manager of the Monument Sanitation District, who started the letter. “There is no funding from the state for any of this, or the federal government.”[…]

Eric Brown, the governor’s press secretary, said Hickenlooper will allow the public hearing process to run its course, and doesn’t plan to intercede.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said he plans to introduce a bill when the Legislature reconvenes next month calling for a five-year moratorium on the rule, to give local communities more time to study its impact. King said the proposed regulation is contrary to an executive order issued by the governor earlier this year to limit state regulations that prove too onerous while the state is recovering from the recession.

More wastewater coverage here.

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