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Idaho taking over water pollution permitting from feds

BOISE – Despite Idaho’s vaunted distaste for the federal government, it’s one of just four states where getting a permit for dumping pollutants into waterways requires dealing with the federal Environmental Protection Agency instead of the state.

That’s changing under a law that quietly cleared the Idaho Legislature without a single opposing vote this year. But the change means Idaho will have to add an estimated 25 employees over the next eight years at the state Department of Environmental Quality – in a GOP-dominated state where lawmakers also spend lots of time about talking about shrinking government.

“I have to suck it up and say yes, it’s worth it,” said former Idaho Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, who pushed persistently for the move during his three terms in the Senate; he’s also a former Post Falls mayor and city administrator. “I think it really does make more sense than letting the feds do it for us. It’s a better way to control our own destiny.”

Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, acted as the bill’s lead sponsor this year, presenting it in the Legislature, working with the state DEQ and rounding up support.

“We don’t view this as an expansion of government,” said LaBeau, whose group is the state’s largest business lobby. “Whether you’re dealing with the EPA or the DEQ … you’re dealing with government, and government costs money.”

LaBeau said the DEQ in recent years has built up its credibility with industry, environmental groups and lawmakers. The state agency has “the technical capacity to do it, and they have the flexibility to do it appropriately – so that’s why we’d rather see that than having 25 employees for EPA being in charge of it,” he said.

Plus, the EPA has had huge backlogs in its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting program, or NPDES, in Idaho. The state DEQ currently has no backlogs in the other pollution permitting programs it’s authorized to run.

“That’s a big deal – time is money,” LaBeau said. “You can’t get a permit to construct, you can’t construct – that’s an economic development issue.”

Sid Fredrickson, wastewater superintendent for the city of Coeur d’Alene, has mixed feelings about the change.

“They’re so far behind that it’s unbelievable,” he said of the EPA’s permitting backlog.

The city’s current permit for its sewer plant is nine years out of date.

But, he said, “Every time we get a new permit it’s more restrictive, so the longer they put us on an administrative extension the better – the more money we save. I think I’ve spent half my life on administrative extension.”

Coeur d’Alene, like Post Falls and Hayden, is in the midst of big, costly upgrades to its sewage treatment plant. The improvements are being done in anticipation of new requirements, including cutting releases of phosphorus from up to 1,000 parts per billion to less than 50. Over the next nine years, Fredrickson said, the upgrades will cost the city more than $30 million.

North Idaho cities face more stringent water-quality standards than those elsewhere in the state because Idaho effluent flows downstream into Washington, which has stricter standards. Idaho’s effluent is required to meet the Washington standards when it hits the state line.

“Would I rather deal with the DEQ in permit negotiations than the EPA in Seattle? The answer to that is yes,” Fredrickson said. “Is it going to lessen the restrictions? I don’t believe it will.”

The state agency, which will eventually have staffers in each of its regions to run the program, will be more familiar than the EPA with local conditions, said Idaho DEQ Director Curt Fransen. That could make it easier for locals to work with regulators.

About half of Idaho’s NPDES permit holders are cities or other municipalities; the rest are industrial users, from mines to fish farms to confined animal feeding operations.

Hammond said the change will put Idaho on a more even playing field with Washington, which issues wastewater permits at the state level.

The Association of Idaho Cities has long made the change to state “primacy” a top legislative priority, but it never went through, in part for lack of funding. This year’s bill starts the eight-year phase-in with $300,000 in state funds and adds three new employees at DEQ. The agency is currently recruiting a program chief. Once it’s fully phased in, the cost is estimated at $2.5 million to $3 million a year; it’s unclear how much of that would come from the state and how much from permit fees. Details will be worked out through rule-making sessions and additional legislation.

Fransen said the feds have indicated Idaho won’t get long-term federal funding for the change, but LaBeau said his group is working with 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson to try to get some federal money.

Ken Harward, head of the Association of Idaho Cities, said cities spend huge sums on sewage treatment, and they see a speedier, locally run permitting process as a money-saver.

“It’s been a priority for years,” he said. “This year we had industry support, which made the difference.”

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