New water-quality rule expected to affect energy companies

  • Jon Hurdle
The Delaware River is among major drinking water sources that will get extra protection from a new EPA rule covering their tributaries

Katie Colaneri/StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Delaware River is among major drinking water sources that will get extra protection from a new EPA rule covering tributaries

Pennsylvania’s energy companies are expected to be among businesses that will be affected by a new federal rule extending the protection of the Clean Water Act to small tributaries and other waterways that feed major rivers supplying drinking water to millions of people.

Operators of natural gas rigs or builders of pipelines will likely have to comply with the Clean Water Rule, announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on May 27, which imposes tougher standards on companies that want to operate near the streams that flow into rivers.

Businesses of all kinds will have to apply for a permit to operate near the waterways, and the EPA will determine on a case-by-case basis whether their activities would be in compliance with the 1972 law, which is the basis for the new rule.

It’s not yet clear whether the gas industry will be affected by the rule’s requirements to the same extent as other industries because of existing exemptions, said Adam Garber, field director for PennEnvironment, which welcomed the new rule.

But Garber predicted the measure will eventually affect gas companies.

“The reality is that there will be places where the drillers are developing whether it’s gas drilling platforms, if it’s pipelines, where the Clean Water Act may play a role in protecting those streams,” he said on Monday, at a Philadelphia news conference to welcome the rule’s effect on the city’s water supply.

For Philadelphia, the new rule means that streams and wetlands feeding the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers will be subject to new protections that would prevent the entry of potentially harmful contaminants before they make their way downstream to water-treatment plants.

Tougher restrictions on upstream effluent will also make it safer for people such as swimmers, kayakers or fishermen to use the streams that might otherwise have high levels of pollution, Garber said.

The rule removes earlier uncertainty over whether smaller waterways were covered under the 1972 Clean Water Act, a federal law that forms the basis for the new rule, after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 and 2006 excluded wetlands from the waterways that can be protected under the Act.

Garber said he expects the rule will draw legal challenges from the business community but he predicted that the courts will allow it to stand because it is consistent with the original aims of the law.

“We know that the intent was always to protect our large streams, and the EPA has a 40-year record of doing that in a responsible way,” he said.

The prospect of cleaner water reaching treatment plants doesn’t suggest existing water supplies are tainted, just that there will be less treatment required, Garber said.

“Philadelphia Water [Department] obviously does a lot of work to make sure that we have safe drinking water but it will make their job easier in keeping toxics out before it gets to them,” he said.

While the new rule aims to improve the quality of streams, it won’t change existing exclusions from the law’s requirements for some land uses including planting, harvesting, and moving livestock. It does not change private property rights and does not regulate most ditches or ground water.

The American Petroleum Institute said the rule creates “needless regulatory uncertainty” and adds to costs for a range of industries including farmers, home builders and manufacturers.

The National Association of Manufacturers said the rule fails in its stated goal of removing regulatory uncertainty. “Under the guise of providing clarity, the EPA and the Corps have expanded the federal government’s reach into manufacturers’ on-site activities,” the trade group said in a statement on its website.

Christine Knapp, deputy chief of staff for the Philadelphia Water Department, said the new rule will make it easier for the city agency to ensure safe drinking-water supplies.

While the city’s water utility screens supplies for upstream pollutants, those substances still present a challenge, Knapp told supporters and journalists during the event, held at the historic Fairmount Water Works on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

“There is still much more work that we need to do to make sure our drinking water is protected,” she said.

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