Missouri Looks at Update to Water Quality Rules

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS * Tens of thousands of miles of Missouri rivers, streams and creeks would get protection from E. coli bacteria and other pollutants under a sweeping upgrade to water protection laws being considered by the state's Clean Water Commission.

The Environmental Protection Agency told the state more than a decade ago that it needed to update its water quality standards to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. After years of meetings, debate and two lawsuits that tried to force the EPA to implement the standards, the Department of Natural Resources has put forward a proposal that will be subject to a public hearing at 9 a.m. today in Jefferson City.

The commission, a seven-member citizen panel appointed by the governor, is expected to vote on the proposal at its November meeting. The new rules would put specific limits on pollutants in waters across the state and prompt small wastewater treatment facilities to treat their discharges.

If approved, the new standards are expected to take effect early next year.

The current proposal represents one of the broadest environmental rule makings in recent memory and one that most people involved in the process agree is long overdue.

While E. coli problems at Lake of the Ozarks and Kiefer Creek in St. Louis County called attention to water-quality problems in recent years, regulators and the public can't be sure whether other rivers, creeks and streams are safe because there are no numeric limits on pollution and no monitoring.

Roger Walker, a lawyer and executive director of Regform, an association of some of the state's biggest businesses that works on environmental compliance issues, said the rules need to be put in place or the state runs the risk of seeing the federal government take over responsibility for water quality.

"This stuff has been put on hold too long," he said. "We're at a tipping point here with respect to getting court involvement and EPA regional involvement. If we want to have a state program, and protect Missouri waters with Missouri resources and Missouri stakeholders, this is our opportunity to step up to the plate."

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment has pressed the state for more than a decade to update its water quality standards to comply with the Clean Water Act. The group twice filed lawsuits in an effort to force the EPA to step in and do the job.

In the most recent lawsuit, decided in February 2012, a federal judge sided with the EPA, saying the federal government has discretion on whether to implement water quality rules in Missouri. But the order also made clear that the state was in violation of the Clean Water Act.

'A MAJOR STEP'

The coalition says the proposal still falls short because it omits thousands of small and intermittent streams, headwaters and wetlands waters vital to protecting fish, shellfish and wildlife and human health. Today some of those water bodies, like those being protected, are choked with sediment or rife with bacteria.

St. Louis-area bodies of water that would remain unprotected under the proposed rules include Simpson Lake in west St. Louis County; a segment of Gravois Creek through Grant's Farm; part of Caulks Creek in north St. Louis County; and lakes at August A. Busch Memorial Conservation Area, according to the coalition.

Though the group wants the rule to cover additional bodies of water, it is supporting the rules.

"It's a major step in the right direction," said Peter Goode, an environmental engineer with Washington University's Interdisciplinary Environmental Law Clinic, which is providing legal counsel to the coalition.

While the EPA hasn't yet chosen to step in and promulgate water quality regulations in Missouri, the agency has been a constant presence during the rulemaking process. …