The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for creating regulations to enforce federal water quality standards, but clean water activists fear a proposed change to one of those regulations could end up having a negative impact on drinking-water quality in Central Arkansas.
ADEQ has proposed a change to regulation six, which would allow construction permits for individual wastewater treatment facilities — pre-made facilities that generate less than 1,000 gallons of treated wastewater per day — to be issued “by rule,” meaning there would be no public comment or appeal process. The proposed change has some water utility officials and Lake Maumelle advocates concerned.
Individual wastewater treatment facilities are pre-fabricated systems that serve residences built on land that cannot support a septic system. To install one, two types of permits are required: one for their construction and one for their operation.
The construction permit is what's known as an individual permit, one that is issued to a particular facility. Individual permits require a public comment period and can be appealed for 30 days after they're issued. Issuing the permits “by rule” would eliminate that process.
The operation permit is a general permit, meaning it's issued to certain types of facilities, not particular facilities at individual locations. The inability to appeal certain facilities has Central Arkansas Water concerned because some of those treatment plants could turn up in the Lake Maumelle watershed.
ADEQ wants to change the rule because these individual wastewater treatment facilities are already approved by the state health department and getting rid of the construction permit would reduce red-tape for homeowners and contractors.
Martin Maner, director of watershed management at CAW, says he doesn't have a problem with the changes to the construction permit, but that decision could have unintended consequences — namely, taking the public out of the process.
“It makes sense to do the construction permit by rule, because these are literally packaged plants,” Maner says. “They're designed by an engineer and they'll be sized right, etc. So it doesn't really make a lot of sense for an ADEQ engineer to review all of that. But the problem is that the operation permit is already a general permit, which cannot be appealed. So that means that everything goes away regarding the ability to know where they're at, to comment and, if necessary, appeal.”
From the water utility's perspective, the lack of public hearings and the inability to appeal a permit ruling would affect their efforts to monitor the facilities and the impact they may have on the water supply.
“What they should do is modify the operation permit to say if there is going to be discharge into a surface water supply, then there needs to be an individual permit,” Maner says.
Barry Haas is the coordinator for Citizens Protecting Maumelle Watershed, an organization dedicated to protecting the water quality of Lake Maumelle, a drinking source for over 400,000 people in the state. He's concerned about the potential impact these facilities could have, but worries more about losing public input.
“It short-circuits the public notification and public participation, and that's probably more of a state-wide issue because there are other water bodies out there besides Lake Maumelle,” Haas says. “Beaver Lake and a lot of the other public drinking-water lakes could be impacted in a negative way, so it seems like that's going in the wrong direction as far as making sure the public is in the loop, knows about what's going on and has a chance to comment on it if they wish to.”
ADEQ director Teresa Marks says a lot of the concerns she's been hearing have to do with whether these types of facilities should exist at all.
“I understand the concerns that some of the utilities have but I think it deals more with whether these types of systems should be allowed at all and that's really an issue for the legislature,” Marks says. “If the legislature decides they want to pass a law to ban these systems then certainly we wouldn't permit them. But right now, if they meet the terms of our permit guidelines, then we will permit them.”
Marks says her agency is open to considering other options including Maner's suggestion of changing the general permit. Haas also thinks that's a reasonable solution.
“We consider all comments that are sent in. If it's something that makes sense, that is going to be a better way to ensure those environmental protections, then we'll make changes,” Marks says.
ADEQ is holding two public hearings to receive comments on these rule changes. The first will be at 6 p.m. May 18 at the Jones Center for Families chapel in Springdale. The second hearing will be at 2 p.m. May 19 at ADEQ headquarters in North Little Rock.