State to take over pollutant permitting

A backlog at the EPA obstructs economic development, an Idaho business lobbyist says.

THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEWJune 17, 2014 

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, a former Post Falls mayor who pushed persistently for the move during his three terms in the Senate. "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 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."

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 permit holders through the EPA program are cities or other municipalities. The rest are industrial users, from mines to fish farms to confined animal feeding operations.

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 now recruiting a program chief.

Once it's fully phased in, the cost is estimated at $2.5 million to $3 million a year. It is 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 federal officials have indicated Idaho won't get long-term federal funding for the change, but LaBeau said his group is working with 2nd District U.S. 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 too.

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

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