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Comments sought on Idaho plan to regulate water pollution

The Snake River.

The Snake River. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is accepting comments on Idaho’s plan to take over the regulation of pollution discharge into the state’s lakes and rivers. File photo.

Federal authorities are taking comments and have set public meeting dates on Idaho’s plan to take over regulating pollution discharge into the state’s lakes and rivers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said August 11 it is accepting the comments as Idaho officials seek to shift control of permitting and enforcement aspects from federal authorities acting under the federal Clean Water Act to the state.

Meetings are set in September in Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Boise, Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene.

If the authorization process moves forward, Idaho will start a four-year process in the summer of 2018 to phase in responsibility for issuing pollution discharge permits to cities, industrial businesses, mining operators, animal feedlots and others.

Idaho officials said the advantage of a state-run program will be more responsive local experts better acquainted with Idaho making decisions.

“I think we have a better working relationship with our regulated community than the EPA does,” said Mary Anne Nelson, manager of the Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

She said the state would also be more responsive to complaints about pollution from the general public, and officials plan to set up an online site to keep the public informed.

Idaho is one of only four states where federal authorities manage pollution discharge into surface waters. The others are Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

Nelson said the cost of Idaho taking over regulation from the EPA is $3 million a year. She said $2 million of that will come from the state’s general fund and $1 million from fees in the program.

Idaho lawmakers in 2014 directed the state Department of Environmental Quality to seek authorization for a state-run program. A public process called rulemaking followed, leading to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality in August 2016 submitting an application to the federal agency.

As part of that process, Idaho lawmakers have approved hiring more workers. So far, 16 of the 21 approved full-time workers have been hired, Nelson said, with five in the process of being hired. She said the agency will ask lawmakers to approve hiring another eight workers for a total workforce of 29 over the next several years.

The EPA said Wednesday in an emailed statement to The Associated Press it will retain oversight of the state’s program, which includes a right to review permits issued by the state and object to permits.

The agency said it could ultimately withdraw Idaho’s authority to manage pollution discharge if the state fails to meet Clean Water Act requirements.

The Idaho Conservation League has taken part in the public process as Idaho seeks to take over from the EPA.

“There are a lot of questions to see how this shakes out,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, director of government relations for the group. “But at a fundamental level, we should see a consistent level of protection.”

The watchdog group earlier this summer said it analyzed data over the last three years and found that 81 percent of the sewage treatment plants in in the state have violated the Clean Water Act within the last five years.

Nelson said Idaho municipalities, especially smaller ones that might lack expertise, could benefit from state managers who could help with the process of improving systems, including getting federal grants to help pay for the expensive wastewater treatment plants.

“We would be able to pool a lot of these resources,” she said. “It’s that improved communication that is going to be a big benefit for the regulated communities.”

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