Idaho moves to take over federal waste permitting system

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

A small bureaucratic Idaho agency is trying to win a big battle for states sovereignty.

Last week, the Department of Environmental Quality published new rules laying out its plan to take over a federal waste permitting system.

The EPA has been an easy target for Idaho politicians. For years, legislation to nullify the agency and memorials to condemn its actions have circulated the statehouse.

But this week, Idaho made a tangible step toward taking some control from the federal agency.

The EPA currently controls Idaho’s pollutant discharge elimination system. Idaho is one of only a handful of states that doesn’t manage its own program. That means if an Idaho company or municipality wants to release waste, it has to get a permit from the EPA.

Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, says the current system has problems. “It has been very difficult for Idahoans to get timely responses. Oftentimes, the first time Idaho citizens find out they are not in compliance with (federal regulations) is when then receive notice of non-compliance and a hefty fine is attached for non-compliance,” said Bair, chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee.

Bair and other stakeholders hope that will change under the Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or IPDES.

“Under state management, DEQ believes that permit holders will receive more personalized attention,” said Mary Anne Nelson, IPDES program manager. That means “a better understanding of the unique challenges that face Idaho dischargers; and more timely permits,” she said.

The basic assumption is that Idahoans are better equipped to serve Idahoans. “It is my hope that (Idaho) will be better and more efficient and will try and work with stakeholders to resolve issues,” said Lynn Tominaga, executive director of Idaho Groundwater Appropriators. “This doesn’t mean the state managers will be less stringent because EPA will be looking over the state shoulder to make sure the IPDES program follows federal rules.”

The roles that DEQ and the EPA have will be reversed under the new plan. “Idaho will now do all the work and certification of state water quality standards and EPA will now review both the permits and state standards,” Tominaga said.

That said, Idaho will not be able to relax the federal standards. Under the new plan, state standards will have to meet or exceed those of the EPA. There is also a large cost associated with taking over the program. Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry estimated the cost would be $300,000 this year and then build up to $2.5 million by 2022 — numbers the agency agrees with. The program would also require hiring approximately 25 new positions, according to the DEQ.

Many pitfalls still remain for the DEQ plan. The agency will take public comment until October, and a final draft will be presented to Gov. Otter in November.

The plan faces its biggest test when it heads to the statehouse for legislative approval during the 2016 session. If it passes those hurdles, the EPA will receive the plan by September 2016.

The politics are anything but straight forward, as it mixes growing state government, concerns of federal overreach, and complex water policy in a state very dependent on its river and aquifers. “There may be some who will be very uncomfortable with the growth of DEQ and added associated costs,” Bair said.

A bright spot for supporters of the plan: Not a single lawmaker voted against the original legislation when it passed in 2014.


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