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Ammonia-nitrogen water quality bills await action from the Governor

Several bills drafted to mitigate the anticipated impacts on localities and wastewater authorities of the Environment Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2013 water quality criteria for guidance cleared both the House and Senate and have reached Governor Ralph Northam’s desk.

As drafted, the new EPA guidance seeks to reduce the ammonia-nitrogen limits in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) to approximately half of the level currently allowed, requiring major, highly expensive upgrades to hundreds of WWTPs across the Commonwealth that are neither designed nor constructed to meet these new levels.  According to a recent engineering study, this change cost their owners $512 million in capital construction as well as an additional $34 million in operating costs. The study estimates that 590 treatment plants would be impacted, though the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget has estimated 370 plants would be impacted.  While the impacts will be felt across the state, this burden falls most heavily on smaller treatment plants in Southside, West, and far Southwest Virginia.

SB 344 (Peake) and HB 1475 (Poindexter) directs the State Water Control Board not to adopt certain U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) freshwater ammonia water quality criteria (the Criteria) unless the Board includes in such adoption a phased implementation program consistent with the federal Clean Water Act with certain funding and timing considerations. The bill also directs the DEQ to (i) identify any other states that have adopted the Criteria as of July 1, 2018; (ii) identify those procedures for the implementation of the Criteria that will minimize the impact of such implementation on Virginia sewerage systems while complying with the Clean Water Act; and (iii) report its findings to the Chairmen of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources, the Senate Finance Committee, and the House Appropriations Committee by November 1, 2018.

SB 340 (Peake) and HB 1608 (Poindexter) authorizes the DEQ to distribute grants from the Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund for cost effective technologies to reduce nutrient loads of total phosphorus, total nitrogen, or nitrogen-containing ammonia subsequent to satisfaction of nutrient reductions of regulations, permits, or the Chesapeake Bay TMDL Watershed Implementation Plan. The bill requires the DEQ to prepare a preliminary estimate of the amount and timing of Water Quality Improvement Grants required to fund projects to reduce loads of nitrogen-containing ammonia at certain levels based on an estimate of the anticipated range of costs for all publicly owned treatment works if the State Water Control Board were to adopt the 2013 Aquatic Life Ambient Water Quality Criteria for Ammonia published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

VACo was proud to work with a number of stakeholders, including the Virginia Municipal Stormwater Association (VAMSA), on the final language of these bills and spoke in support of these measures during the 2018 Session.

VACo Contact: Chris McDonald, Esq.

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