California’s regulatory tsunami is poised to soak 14,000 mostly small companies in San Diego County that fall under a broad definition of light industry.
At a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, the State Water Resources Control Board is expected to approve new rules on business operations designed to dramatically reduce levels of bacteria, dirt and chemicals that flow into creeks and the ocean whenever it rains or water otherwise hits the pavement. Companies statewide would have until July 15, 2015, to comply.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because in May the agency’s regional arm imposed similar regulations on local governments in San Diego County, along with parts of Riverside and Orange counties. Those regulations will apply to companies, too, so Tuesday’s proceeding will add a layer.
Taken together, the rules will require many billions of dollars in new spending. Yet they are effectively impossible to meet, scientists say.
For example, one new industrial standard sets a maximum level of zinc at 0.26 milligrams per liter in the water flowing into a creek from a company parking lot.
In drinking water, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum for zinc is 5 milligrams.
Put another way, stormwater running down the street must be about 19 times cleaner than tap water, at least when it comes to zinc. Standards for other “pollutants” like bacteria from bird droppings or dog poop are equally incredible.
As a trip to any lagoon will demonstrate, we still allow too much litter, oil and other toxic stuff to drift into our waterways. But people don’t require a regulatory apocalypse to change habits. Thoughtful, incremental measures would suffice.
State officials say the industrial regulations aren’t as extreme as they look.
“There is no requirement to meet those values; they are guidance values,” intended to remove pollution from runoff over time using better management practices, said Greg Gearheart, senior water resource control engineer for the state agency.
Yet the rules being finalized Tuesday allow regulators to impose limits any time in the future, specifically on companies. And the May regulations for cities already mandate strict numerical limits that will apply to everybody.
In the meantime, assurances from regulators that they will be patient and flexible don’t seem to be calming anybody down.
“Freaking out” is a better description of how local governments are reacting.
San Diego County estimates that just one of the new standards, for animal bacteria in runoff, could cost cities $5.1 billion over 17 years. Last month, San Diego officials alerted Wall Street that the city faces $4 billion in new compliance spending, without a plan for getting the revenue.
Of course, the tab for governments will ultimately be paid by consumers and business owners.
Then our costs will grow considerably more, because governments can’t comply unless they get all of us to spend money, on everything from cisterns to irrigation systems to engineering and legal fees.
If you see a crew digging a moat around your favorite mall in a few years to catch every drop of stormwater, you’ll know why.
Previously, the task of testing and filtering industrial runoff fell to about 750 big local enterprises, such as the shipyards along San Diego Bay.
But the latest round of regulations will rope in 14,000 companies, according to an analysis by Wayne Rosenbaum, an environmental lawyer with Opper & Varco, and Sean Porter, a water quality engineer at SCS Engineers in San Diego.
The list of “industrial” companies ranges from egg ranches to copy centers to stores that make their own ice cream, according to a state website.
One huge change will affect formerly exempt companies.
For example, if your shop makes ice cream indoors and there’s no possibility of contributing to stormwater pollution, you will soon be required to certify that fact every year.
“Proving that you have no exposure is probably going to be a $2,000 to $4,000 exercise every time you do this,” Rosenbaum said.
Demonstrating exemption from the 76-page industrial regulation will not be trivial, and certainly not for amateurs. Porter questions whether San Diego has nearly enough environmental professionals to keep up.
“Light industry is getting ready to get smacked upside the head,” he said.
If a company does run the risk of creating outdoor pollution, whether it’s from sawdust or oil drops from forklift hydraulics, then a whole new world of hurt awaits.
Each facility must identify a trained “responsible person.” Water must be tested during storms, with a chain of evidence preserved for samples. Executives must sign intimidating compliance documents. Violations can draw fines of $37,500 per day, per violation, along with jail time.
“In the construction sector, we called this individual the ‘designated felon,’ ” Rosenbaum said.
It’s also a sure bet that federal lawsuits — and fat legal settlements — will multiply. Companies must upload their test results to a public database, making it much easier for enterprising attorneys to prospect for targets under the Clean Water Act.
Beyond all this paperwork and testing, there’s unknowable spending required as companies try various combinations of filters, cisterns, vacuums and landscaping to meet water standards that may be impossible to achieve.
State regulators say they are merely designing long overdue measures to comply with federal mandates.
However, a paper released March 19 by the Congressional Research Service concluded that the EPA, after losing key court rulings, hasn’t issued new stormwater regulations since 1999. Old, vague requirements to “eliminate” pollution from runoff are a long way from California’s newfound passion for specific numerical limits.
My sense is that pressure from environmental groups is what’s really pushing state officials. But by requiring the impossible, they risk sabotaging progress.
Environmental economists argue persuasively that clean water has great value, particularly in Southern California.
Besides, all those billions of dollars toward compliance won’t vanish; they will just shift to lawyers, government workers and manufacturers of stormwater devices.
However, excessive costs hurt everybody else’s productivity, creating another competitive disadvantage for California business.
And it’s far from clear that all this spending will buy much improvement.
Everybody in California wants clean water. Environmental activists are correct when they say the biggest source of pollution is urban runoff.
But here’s what they don’t say: Over the last 40 years we’ve eliminated 95 percent of all water pollution — despite doubling the population — according to the state’s scientific agency that studies water quality. It’s been accomplished mostly by upgrading municipal sewage treatment and cracking down on big polluters that once freely dumped untreated waste.
Such spectacular success means further progress has become enormously expensive, with far fewer prospects of helping the environment.
So far, this iron law of diminishing returns seems completely lost on state regulators.
Read More: Water police take aim at small companies