Conservation groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday to regulate facilities that generate polluted runoff, part of a campaign to force companies to take responsibility for their environmental impact.
Under the Clean Water Act, the main federal law governing water pollution, most cities must ensure that new buildings are designed to limit runoff. But most pollution comes from existing private property — like scrap metal plants, universities, hospitals, and large retail chains — that cities are often powerless to regulate.
It is this loophole that the petition is meant to address, said Christopher Kilian, Clean Waters and Healthy Forest program director for the Conservation Law Foundation, one group behind the action. The EPA reserves the power to regulate private buildings at its discretion, he said, and the petition asks the agency to exercise that authority in New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Southwest, California, and Hawaii.
“If a company is contributing to a water-quality problem, it should be regulated,” Kilian said. “Storm water pollution is the most significant remaining source of pollution in our waterways.”
The EPA said Wednesday it plans to review the petition, filed jointly by environmental groups including the Conservation Law Foundation, and American Rivers.
“EPA is also working with communities across the country to advance the use of green infrastructure, supported integrated planning for water infrastructure, and provide technical assistance for storm water projects,” the statement read.
When rain or snow falls on undeveloped land, it is generally absorbed by plants and soil. But when it falls on streets or parking lots, the water continues flowing, picking up oil, dirt, and toxic substances before returning to rivers and streams. To reduce polluted runoff, buildings can design contoured parking lots that guide water toward garden beds, Kilian said, or install “green roofs” with plants that absorb the rain. Installing a filter at the end of water pipes works as well, he added.
Polluted runoff decreases water quality, erodes shores, and destroys fish and other aquatic life. According to the petition, polluted storm water was responsible in 2000 for more than 38,000 miles of impaired rivers and 79,000 acres of impaired wetlands, numbers that Kilian said remain accurate today.
In New Hampshire, storm water has contributed to more than 80 percent of statewide water quality impairment, the petition said. In Rhode Island, roughly 75 percent of yearly beach closures can be traced to runoff pollution.
In Boston’s Mystic River, one of the waterways highlighted in the petition, much of the pollution stems from “unpermitted, uncontrolled storm water runoff,” Kilian said. The river, running 7 miles from Medford and Arlington to Boston Harbor, usually earns low marks on the annual federal water quality report card. The Conservation Law Foundation has sued scrap metal plants along the river for lacking proper permits to discharge industrial pollutants.
Environmental advocates framed the petition in terms of economic justice: Why should cities — and, ultimately, taxpayers — bear the brunt of the cost for pollution, they asked, when they were responsible for only a small subset?
“Our local governments are bearing the burden all by themselves,” said Rebecca Hammer, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are not getting a lot of help from the private property owners who are actually often the root of the problem.”
Jeffrey Odefey, director of the storm water program at American Rivers, said transferring responsibility to companies might mobilize businesses to adopt more progressive ways to limit runoff pollution. He said storm water must be managed more equitably.
And the cost to companies in the short term could be outweighed by benefits to society in the long term, said Kilian. Poor water quality damages public health, ecosystems, and tourism. Building greener infrastructure could drive up surrounding property values, he said, and create jobs.