State Politics

Idaho DEQ moving forward with plans to take over water pollution permitting from the EPA

Idaho Statesman file photo

Idaho Department of Environmental Quality is proposing to add nine new employees next year as part of the state’s plan to takeover permitting of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Idaho is one of four states in which getting a permit for dumping pollutants into waterways requires dealing with the federal government instead of the state. The other states are New Mexico, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

“Our plan is to phase in our assumption of the administrative duties of that law,” DEQ Director John Tippets told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Thursday morning. “We won’t actually start issuing permits until the middle of next year.”

Since the Legislature directed the DEQ to seek state primacy for the NPDES program in 2014, it has brought on 10 state-funded staffers plus two who are federally funded. “At whole build out, we will need 29 employees,” Tippets told lawmakers. “We’ve been saying that all along, and the cost will be about $3.1 million” a year. The money will come from a combination of state general funds, fees, and “a small amount of federal dollars.”

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has asked lawmakers to fund an additional deputy attorney general to work on permitting and enforcing the new program, which will be called the Idaho Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or IPDES.

When Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, it gave enforcement authority to the EPA, but called on states to be the primary administrators of the program. The same approach followed with the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Tippets explained.

“States were required to demonstrate they had the resources, including the financial resources, the employees, the expertise, the process and the statutes and rules in place to fully implement the programs,” Tippets said. “If a state chose not to administer a particular law, that responsibility remained then with the EPA.”

Idaho chose not to take on that responsibility.

With the EPA administering the pollutant discharge program in Idaho, the state’s permit-holders have long complained about big backlogs in issuing permits. About half of Idaho’s permit holders are cities or other municipalities, while the rest are industrial users from mines to fish farms and confined animal feeding operations. The 2014 legislation was strongly backed by Idaho industries.

Tippets told lawmakers he thinks the state can do a better job than the EPA.

“We know that we work for the people of Idaho,” he said “We know environmental laws can be hard to understand, so we try to help businesses, local governments and citizens to understand and comply with the law, and we try to help them understand the benefits of complying. Sometimes we have to use our enforcement authority, and it’s important to have the ability to do so, but we enjoy it most when we can work with the regulated community to achieve positive outcomes. And we believe that our approach of working with Idahoans to help them understand and comply with the law reaps long-term benefits.”