By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin residents may soon pay more to flush the toilet but enjoy cleaner lakes, rivers and streams under a plan to more strictly regulate phosphorus pollution in state waterways.
The state Natural Resources Board is set Tuesday to approve public hearings on tougher limits on the pollution, which can cause algae blooms and fish kills, endanger health and ruin beaches and fishing spots.
Environmental groups have applauded the proposed limits, saying they are long overdue and will help protect the public and state water quality.
“We’ll be able to swim in our lakes again. We’ll have better fishing. Our water resources will be more attractive for tourism,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
Affected industry groups, however, say the cost of adhering to the new standards will be high, and that consumers will be left holding the bill.
The Department of Natural Resources estimates up to 163 municipal wastewater plants may need new filtration systems to comply that could cost a total of $300 million to $1.13 billion.
The Municipal Environmental Group Wastewater Division, which is made up of 95 wastewater plants in small-to-mid-size cities, puts the cost at $1.4 billion to $4.3 billion. Paul Kent, an attorney for the group, said the DNR’s figures don’t account for smaller facilities that may need to buy more land to set up their new systems or reconfigure their sites.
“This is hugely expensive,” Kent said. He said if the state adopts the changes, it has to do more to regulate other sources of phosphorus pollution, such as farms that produce runoff.
Dave Taylor, the director of special projects at the Madison Metropolitan Sewage District, estimates it would cost his district $85 million in new construction plus operating costs to comply with the standards. That would probably mean $40 more a year for typical residential customers on top of what their respective city charges them, he said.
Other industries that would be affected, including paper and food producers, say the proposal would put them at a competitive disadvantage with other states. The DNR estimates that up to 35 such business facilities could face up to $440 million in increased costs under the plan.
“The bottom line is we have to find a way to satisfy the EPA and the environmentalists,” said Nick George, the executive director of the Midwest Food Processors Association. “We’ve been saying we’re doing as much as we can financially. We’re constantly struggling to bring our phosphorus levels down.”
Biologists believe phosphorus, a chemical commonly found in fertilizer and manure, can cause ugly algae blooms and dissolve oxygen in the water, killing fish and insects. The blooms can produce toxins that can cause a host of health problems, including rashes, respiratory irritation, headaches, fever and nausea and potentially cancer, according to the DNR.
The agency considers 172 lakes and streams in the state “impaired waters” because of phosphorus pollution.
The DNR currently limits how much phosphorus individual wastewater facilities can discharge directly into state waters. Agency rules contain a general prohibition on excessive phosphorus in state waters, but don’t lay out any hard limits.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been pushing states for over a decade to impose more precise standards, known as numeric limits, on the total amount of phosphorus allowed in a body of water, but only a few states have done so.
Last year, the EPA imposed standards on a state for the first time after a number of environmental advocacy groups sued to force the agency to take action in Florida. And in November, several groups, including the Sierra Club and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, warned the EPA that they also planned to sue in Wisconsin unless action was taken.
Todd Ambs, the DNR’s water division administrator, said it took the agency more than a decade to complete its research because the phosphorus pollution issue is so complex. He said the EPA wants strict limits in place in Wisconsin by the end of the year.
Ambs acknowledged the new standards come with a cost. But people already pay for polluted waters through closed beaches, dirty vacation spots and higher treatment costs for tap water, he said.
Peggy McAloon, 62, lives on Tainter Lake in Colfax in northwestern Wisconsin. She said foamy algae that resembles manure and smells like a “barnyard” covers the lake for nearly half the year. Her grandchildren refuse to visit because of the algae, she said.
“Seven months out of the year it’s like living in a cathedral. It’s spectacular. The other five months are like living in a toxic waste dump,” McAloon said. “I applaud the DNR and anything they’re trying to do to clean the water.”
The rules would be subject to legislative review. Ambs said he hopes to get the package to lawmakers by August.