Report: EPA failing to stop sprawl runoff
The Environmental Protection Agency is failing to stem the pollution washing into waterways from cities and suburbs, the National Academy of Sciences reported Wednesday, and should radically change how the federal government regulates stormwater runoff.
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is failing to stem the pollution washing into waterways from cities and suburbs, the National Academy of Sciences reported Wednesday.
The report's authors urged "radical changes" in how the federal government regulates stormwater runoff so that all waters are clean enough for fishing and swimming.
"The take-home message is the program as it has been implemented in the last 18 to 20 years has largely been a failure," said Xavier Swamikannu, one of the authors and the head of Los Angeles' stormwater program for the California Environmental Protection Agency.
The findings by a committee of top experts, including two from Washington, affirm many of the complaints by Washington environmentalists, who warn the current approach to stormwater here, combined with sprawl, is a major source of damage to Puget Sound and the rivers that feed it.
"The good news is that we do have solutions to a lot of the shortcomings of the stormwater program," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney with the environmental-law firm Earthjustice.
Hasselman has successfully challenged a state-administered permit issued under the EPA's stormwater program. A state board recently ruled the Department of Ecology needs to rewrite the rules, and require some of the biggest cities and counties to use more land-use restrictions and new technology to limit stormwater damage. The board is now considering similar challenges to rules for smaller cities and counties.
Stormwater runoff is the toxic brew of oil, fertilizers and trash picked up by rain and snowmelt as the water flows over parking lots, roofs and subdivisions.
The Academy's report said responsibility for managing stormwater must shift from developers to local governments, and permits should be issued on the boundaries of a watershed, rather than state borders. Such a change probably would require a new law and take between five and 10 years, the report said.
It will also mean tackling how development spreads over the land, rather than just cleaning water once it gets dirty, said Derek Booth, a UW professor and geologist who helped write the report.
"The solutions are not to, if you will, take whatever junk is rolled off the landscape by whatever land use is spread willy nilly across it and then try to clean it up," he said.
Booth and Richard Horner, the two Washington scientists on the panel, both signed a letter several years ago warning that failing to restrict land use, and relying on conventional stormwater controls, could doom Puget Sound restoration efforts.
That triggered a backlash from the development industry, which argued current regulations are some of the strictest in the country.
While urban areas cover only 3 percent of the U.S., it is estimated that their runoff is the primary source of pollution in 13 percent of rivers, 18 percent of lakes and 32 percent of estuaries.
Current law is ill-equipped to deal with the problem, the authors said.
Congress required the EPA in 1987 to start issuing permits under the Clean Water Act to industrial and construction sites. But lawmakers changed the focus on water pollution, from industrial discharges and sewage pipes to runoff, a problem that is much larger and harder to pinpoint.
The law is designed to target specific contaminants, when the problem with stormwater often is one of volume. A surge of water after a storm can cause streams to erode and fill waterways with sediment.
Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water, said the findings underscored the approaches the EPA is taking. The agency requested the review in 2006, but Grumbles disagreed on Wednesday with the conclusion that the stormwater program was failing.
"We want to accelerate the progress on reducing pollution and managing stormwater. We believe sound science, pollution prevention, and watershed protection will ensure continued clean water progress," he said.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization chartered by Congress to advise the government of scientific matters.
Seattle Times environmental
reporter Warren Cornwall contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
UPDATE - 09:46 AM
Exxon Mobil wins ruling in Alaska oil spill case
NEW - 7:51 AM
Longview man says he was tortured with hot knife
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.