Environmental advocates criticized a long-overdue update of North Carolina water-quality standards for not including limits on fracking chemicals and other contaminants.
States are required to review their water-quality standards every three years, but North Carolina last did so in 2007. The state Environmental Management Commission is expected to consider them this fall.
“I’m reluctant to applaud the state for doing something it should have done years ago,” said Will Hendrick, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and one of 11 speakers, at a public hearing Wednesday. “The science has been there for years – it’s just been ignored.”
The state has particularly lagged in updating standards for metals, which can be toxic. North Carolina is the only state in the Southeast not to adopt federally recommended standards, the Environmental Protection Agency said in 2010.
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But the state’s rewrite of metals standards includes a loophole that EPA says might violate the Clean Water Act.
The provision, called the “biological trump,” says some metals standards can be broken if there’s no evidence aquatic life has been harmed. EPA says such biological studies aren’t suited to preventing water pollution, which is the aim of federal law.
“It’s not the intent of the Clean Water Act that you pollute to death, which is what (the trump) is,” said Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins. He also criticized the plan for measuring metals in dissolved form, deleting measurements of metal particles that might also release toxic material into the water column.
Other speakers said the state should adopt a standard for methylmercury, a toxic form of mercury that commonly contaminates fish and can leave the babies of women who eat the fish with permanent learning and development problems.
Fracking chemicals grew special attention. The state Mining and Energy Commission is expected to start issuing permits for fracking of natural gas in 2015. Hundreds of chemicals may be used in the process, and the toxicity of many of them is not known.
“It seems like the General Assembly is rushing into fracking the way a kid at summer camp rushes into a lake,” said Allen Hubbard, a Lincolnton geologist whose professional work included cleaning up tainted groundwater.
State officials acknowledge that the standards were crafted to minimize new compliance costs on the municipalities and industries that will be most affected by them. Ninety-six percent of wastewater dischargers won’t see any changes in their permits, the N.C. Division of Water Resources says, while 106 facilities will see new limits for metals.
Sarah Collins of the N.C. League of Municipalities praised the standards for their “good balance of environmental protection without putting unnecessary costs on the regulated community.”
The rules are expected to go before the state Environmental Management Commission between November and January. They will then go to the state Rules Review Commission for a final review before taking effect. EPA will review the standards once they’re in final form.