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Battle brewing over phosphorous rules (UPDATE)

By Sean Ryan

Environmental groups can expect a fight if they follow through with their threat to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to encourage new rules regulating phosphorous levels in water.

Seven environmental organizations are trying to get the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources or EPA to mandate limits on the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen that leaks into streams from construction sites, factories, farms and sewage-treatment plants.

Wally Thom, water and wastewater manager for Rice Lake Utilities and president of the Municipal Environmental Group, said more time is needed to work out the details of the program and make sure it will not be too much of a financial burden on utilities.

He said the Municipal Environmental Group, an association of wastewater utilities owned by municipalities, probably will oppose the impending lawsuit against the EPA.

He said it is too early to figure out how the group will get involved.

“I think we will,” Thom said. “We just need to see where this is going right now.”

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is drafting new phosphorous rules. The department will ask the state Natural Resources Board in early 2010 to hold public hearings in spring on the new rules, said Jim Baumann, special assistant in the DNR Bureau of Watershed Management.

But the seven environmental organizations are trying to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to mandate phosphorous rules in the state.

Citizen organizations are required to give federal agencies a 60-day notification of intent to sue.

The potential lawsuit would push the EPA to require the state approve new rules sooner rather than later, said Betsy Lawton, interim executive director of the Midwest Environmental Advocates and attorney who wrote the EPA letter.

“It’s been an ongoing problem,” she said. “EPA and DNR have known for a while that phosphorous and nitrogen cause the sort of foul, stinky algae that you see in the waters during the summer.”

An EPA representative responded to requests for comment by e-mail, saying the DNR has made good progress in working toward adopting phosphorous rules.

Baumann said he has spent the past year trying to accommodate concerns of agricultural organizations and wastewater utilities as the DNR crafts draft rules.

It took the first eight years of the decade to measure phosphorous levels in state waterways and determine safe levels of phosphorous, he said. Once that was determined, Baumann said, he searched for ways to create phosphorous rules for farms and utilities that will achieve the goals without unreasonably hurting the regulated.

“I have spent many, many days and hours meeting with groups across the state in the past year and a half,” he said, “and alerting them to what we’re doing here.”

Farmers are concerned new rules will limit the amount of land they can cultivate and force them to build new equipment to control manure runoff from livestock facilities, said Jeff Lyon, director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

Municipal wastewater utility directors worry higher standards will force them to raise user rates to pay for projects to build new filtration systems, Thom said.

“If you put any type of filtration system on a mechanical treatment plant, you are talking about a million dollars, easy,” Thom said.

One comment

  1. A million dollars is a drop in the bucket for these treatment facilities and it will be money well spent compared to the ongoing costs associated with cleaning algae from lakes and streams as well as the ongoing loss of species resulting from these pollutants. I would add that Wisconsin stands to lose millions of tourism dollars once people stop visiting our polluted waters.

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