NC raising water standards; critics say not enough

Associated PressJuly 15, 2014 

— After years of delays, North Carolina regulators are moving to strengthen state water-quality standards to include tougher limits on toxic metals like those at issue following the recent coal ash spill into the Dan River.

But environmental watchdog groups warned at a public hearing Tuesday that the proposed standards include loopholes that would still allow farms, industries and sewage treatment plants to pour too much pollution into waterways.

North Carolina is the only Southeastern state that hasn't adopted nationally recommended limits for dissolved metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and chromium-6.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, states are supposed to review their water-quality standards every three years. North Carolina last updated its limits in 2007.

If approved by the state Environmental Management Commission, the revised standards could take effect next year. Federal regulators will also have to sign off on the changes.

Critics of the proposed changes say they fail to limit pollution caused by releases of nitrogen and phosphorous, which causes summertime blooms of algae in rivers and lakes. The proposal also doesn't address contamination from ammonia, which is toxic to aquatic life.

"North Carolina has fallen far behind most of the country in imposing safe limits on toxic heavy metals in the state's rivers and lakes," said Julie Youngman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. "We urge the commission to follow through by improving the state's heavy metal standards, and also to catch up to neighboring states in reducing other toxic pollutants as well."

The state's enforcement of environmental standards has come under increased scrutiny following a Feb. 2 spill at a Duke Energy coal ash dump in Eden that coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.

Testing in the days after the spill showed toxic heavy metals at levels exceeding the current state and federal safety standards. Those readings have since declined as the ash has settled to the river bottom and mixed with sediment. State and federal regulators are now studying the long-term impacts of the contamination on the river's ecosystem.

About 2,000 people have submitted comments on the proposed water-quality changes, either in writing or at public hearings. Another hearing to gather feedback is scheduled in Statesville on Wednesday. Written comments will be accepted through August 22.

Clean water advocates say the proposed standards, as currently written, violate federal law and would potentially allow polluting industries to violate water quality standards without penalty as long as fish and other aquatic life appear to survive. They worry the state could also grant exceptions to some facilities that would allow them to actually pollute more.

"The whole purpose of the Clean Water Act and setting defensible water quality standards is to protect streams from pollution and damage upfront," said Heather Jacobs Deck, the Pamlico-Tar Riverkeeper. "Providing an avenue for industry to pollute at higher levels will only harm our streams and rivers and may take years to discover."

Follow Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck

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