State regulators plan to loosen runoff rules at construction sites

Critics say new rules could run afoul of Clean Water Act

By: - June 30, 2021 5:01 am
An apartment building under construction in Williamson County. (Photo: staff)

An apartment building under construction in Williamson County. (Photo: staff)

A state plan to rollback longstanding regulations for construction site runoff is drawing opposition from environmental groups who fear that Tennessee creeks ands streams will suffer.

Stormwater discharges from construction sites —rainwater that sweeps soil or other particles off-site — can flow into nearby waterways, often creating silt deposits that impact aquatic life and water quality.

Historically, silt has been one of the primary pollutants in Tennessee’s waterways, a paper explaining the proposed new rules from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, or TDEC, said. Just one millimeter of soil spread over a one-acre site can weigh 5 tons, and “even a minor uncontrolled construction activity can cause major impairment in surface water,” through runoff, the paper said.

Nevertheless, TDEC is proposing significant changes in state environmental oversight of builders, developers, property owners, contractors and subcontractors in controlling runoff.

A former director of TDEC’s water pollution control division called the decision to cut regulations for construction companies “puzzling.”

Currently, construction sites are prohibited from disturbing 50 acres of property at one time unless they have applied for, and received, a special stormwater permit — a process that requires public notice and opportunity for comment. The proposed new rules would eliminate that permit requirement.

Smaller construction site disturbances — fewer than 50 acres — currently require twice-weekly stormwater monitoring inspections. The proposed new rules would keep the twice-weekly inspection requirement in place at sites with 50 or more acres undergoing construction activity, but reduce required inspections to once per week for smaller acreages.

On Tuesday, during a meeting to elicit public feedback on the proposal, residents and environmental advocates were the only speakers and strongly opposed the plan.

“Anybody with experience in construction knows that designs are easy to do but things don’t get built that way unless there is oversight and inspections,” said Dennis Gregg, director of the Crossville, Tenn.-based Obed Watershed Community Association.

Gregg called the plan a “mistake” and said the proposed new rules could run afoul of the Clean Water Act, which contains prohibitions on weakening state environmental regulations.

Eliminating inspection requirements of fewer-than-50-acre construction projects “could have a profound impact downstream on the river if things weren’t designed and properly built,” said Buddy Koontz, a retired engineer representing the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association.

“These activities have a real effect on the raw water for drinking water plants,” he said.

Paul Davis, a former director of TDEC’s water pollution control division, called the proposal “puzzling” and said it caught officials who oversee municipal separate storm sewer systems, or MS4’s, by surprise. Under the current rules, construction site operators are required by TDEC to comply with any additional local stormwater management rules required by MS4s, which operate in areas with a population of 100,000 or more. TDEC’s requirement underscored the obligation of construction companies wishing to get, and keep, a TDEC permit to comply with local authorities.

“How is it that the 2021 rational document surprised MS4’s?,” Davis asked. “In 2016, state permits backstopped MS4s, but in 2021 the message is, ‘MS4s you’re on your own.'”

Cindy Whitt, who identified herself only as Tennessee resident, said she wasn’t an expert, but what she had seen of runoff management in local subdivision construction sites was “shocking.”

“I think fewer inspections would make it worse,” she said. “I just cannot believe we would allow this to happen. With increased urban development, it’s only going to get worse. I just hope that we can consider the future of Tennesseans and the future of our environment and do what we need to do to protect things.”

Vojin Janjic, manager of TDEC’s water-based system unit, said the plan was, in part, an effort to streamline the permitting process and based on TDEC’s longtime experience with regulating stormwater runoff. Janjic said reducing inspection requirements at smaller sites to once-per-week was adequate based on that experience, and in line with federal standards.

TDEC will continue to collect written comments on the proposed new rules until July 9. Based on feedback, Janjic said the agency planned to republish new versions of the rules, but did not specify what revisions would be made.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.