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Runoff rule puts pressure on builders (UPDATE)

By Sean Ryan

A new federal runoff rule guarantees that contractors and developers will add a position to many construction sites in Wisconsin: water quality tester.

“The one kind of negative thing, from our perspective, is that because there is a standard, that would trigger monitoring of some sort,” said Pat Stevens, general counsel for the Wisconsin Builders Association.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday published a new rule limiting the amount of dirt and pollutants allowed in water runoff from construction sites. The rule will take effect in 20 months.

The federal guideline establishes a specific limit. The corresponding Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources rule only requires contractors find ways, such as by erecting silt fences, to reduce runoff.

The EPA measures water quality in nephelometric turbidity units. The higher the NTU, the more dirt or sediment in the water.

The EPA rule sets the limit at 280 NTU.

“One of the big unknowns is if you do follow the Wisconsin rules,” Stevens said, “will you meet the 280 NTU standard?”

DNR scientists have tested runoff on projects to determine the effectiveness of the state’s guidelines, said Tim Ryan, DNR water resource engineer. He said the department will use those results to determine if the DNR’s guidelines are enough to meet the EPA’s new standard.

Either way, the state will have to modify its guidelines to match federal requirements, Ryan said.

He said state agencies have leeway in deciding how to enforce the new monitoring requirement. The DNR is just beginning to interpret the rules, Ryan said.

But, he said, it is certain the DNR will not be responsible for monitoring. Ryan said it is too soon to say if companies will be required to send reports to the DNR or just keep records of water tests on file at project sites.

The federal rule is structured to encourage contractors to leave less bare soil on site and to quickly cover soil with turf or mulch, Ryan said. When it takes effect, the EPA rule only will apply to construction sites with 20 or more acres of exposed earth. After four years and two months, the rule will apply only to sites with 10 acres or less of exposed earth.

The 280 NTU standard is a big improvement over an earlier EPA draft that set the limit at 13 NTU, which would have forced contractors to clean runoff on site, Stevens said.

Stevens said builders are still trying to understand what the EPA rule will mean to projects in Wisconsin, but it seems clear monitoring will be the major change. He said he does not yet have advice for builders on how to prepare for the new standard.

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