National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA)

NACWA blasts NRDC-led litigation on nutrient pollution

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Washington, D.C. -- The National Association for Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) is blasting litigation spearheaded by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists seeking  to force EPA to establish costly, one-size-fits all controls on all wastewater treatment plants nationwide to address nutrient pollution in our waterways.

“NRDC and the environmental community know full well that simply forcing wastewater treatment plants to install costly treatment upgrades will not solve the nutrient pollution problem but will just lead to higher rates for already cash-strapped ratepayers and local governments.  NACWA calls on these organizations to abandon this litigation and join with us to focus our efforts where the impact will be the greatest: on agricultural operations that account for up to 90 percent of the nutrient pollution problem in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Ken Kirk, Executive Director of NACWA.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality data, the majority of nutrient pollution impairing our waterways is generated by run-off and groundwater leaching from farm fields.  Numerous studies have shown that the dominant source of nutrient pollution causing deadzones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere is farms.  While wastewater treatment plants are a source of nutrients, they account for less than 10% of the nutrients flowing to the Gulf of Mexico.

“Wastewater treatment agencies stand ready to do their part in addressing the nutrient challenge in watersheds in which treatment upgrades will have an impact. However, costly litigation that seeks to impose stringent, costly and one-size-fits-all controls on ratepayers nationwide is simply a waste of resources and perpetuates the myth that this strategy will be effective in addressing nutrient pollution—it won’t,” Ken Kirk explained.

On March 13, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and several environmental activist groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging EPA’s failure to respond to a 2007 petition requesting the Agency add nutrient removal to the current Clean Water Act (CWA) secondary treatment requirements. A similar group of activist organizations, including NRDC, filed a second lawsuit the same day challenging EPA’s 2011 denial of a petition to establish numeric nutrient criteria for all waters nationwide where such criteria had not been developed but, at a minimum, to establish such criteria for all waters in the Mississippi River watershed and the Gulf of Mexico.

NACWA is analyzing both lawsuits and evaluating all possible legal options in response, including legal intervention in both cases. A technology-based treatment limit for every wastewater treatment plant in the nation—regardless of a demonstrated water quality need—could have astronomical financial costs, with conservative NACWA estimates showing an initial capital cost of more than $280 billion nationally. At a time of financial crisis, when consumers’ water and wastewater bills are rising at unprecedented rates, NACWA believes that there are more cost-effective approaches to controlling nutrient pollution.

NACWA recently released a report finding that the Nation has not paid sufficient attention to agricultural and other nonpoint sources of nutrients, especially compared to the Nation’s direct regulatory focus on reducing nutrients from municipal point sources. According to the report, Controlling Nutrient Loadings to U.S. Waterways: An Urban Perspective icon, the cost to remove a pound of nitrogen or phosphorus from farm runoff and drainage is typically 4 to 5—and sometimes up to 10 to 20—times less than the cost to remove the same amount from municipal wastewater or stormwater.

In addition, NACWA has spearheaded the Healthy Water Coalition, a diverse coalition of stakeholders representing municipal water and wastewater utilities, state regulators, agricultural and conservation sectors, that is urging Congress to include provisions in the Farm Bill for agricultural sources to control nutrients runoff.

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