- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho wants to take over regulating pollution discharge into the state’s lakes and rivers from the federal government.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality on Wednesday submitted an application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to shift control of permitting and enforcement aspects under the federal Clean Water Act to the state.

“It’s a pretty big day for us,” said Barry Burnell, administrator for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Quality Division.

Idaho is one of only four states where federal authorities manage pollution discharge into surface waters, the others being New Mexico, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Idaho officials say a state-run program will have more responsive local experts better acquainted with Idaho making decisions.

If the authorization process moves forward as expected, the Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System in the summer of 2018 will phase in responsibility for issuing pollution discharge permits to cities, industrial businesses, mining operators, animal feedlots and others.

“This is a priority for the state because it allows the state to be in charge of its own destiny,” said Mary Anne Nelson, the system’s program manager. “We cannot make our permits less stringent than the federal government, but we can be clearer and faster.”

State officials will manage the program but federal authorities will be looking over their shoulder.

“While EPA delegates authority to implement the program, we retain both oversight authority and responsibility over the program,” the EPA said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Idaho lawmakers in 2014 directed the state Department of Environmental Quality to seek authorization for a state-run program. A public process called rulemaking followed, culminating with the application on Wednesday.

The six-part application posted on the state agency’s website includes a letter from Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter requesting approval, a 325-page program description, an 80-page memorandum of agreement between Idaho and the EPA, and a statement from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office certifying that Idaho’s laws provide the authority to carry out the program.

The added duties mean the state will have to more than double the number of workers in the program to have the equivalent of 29 full-time positions at a projected cost of $3 million annually.

The funding will have to be approved by state lawmakers, many of whom routinely vote against spending bills they perceive as an expansion of government and others who might find spending money on environmental regulation and enforcement distasteful.

“We expect the State to provide IDEQ with the resources and people they need to run a strong, protective program,” the EPA said.

The Idaho Conservation League has participated in the rulemaking process and said that, besides adequate funding, it has a number of other concerns.

Among them, said the group’s Justin Hayes, is that the Idaho State Department of Agriculture will lean toward compliance rather than enforcement, that urban centers are paying for the program and subsidizing industrial permits, and that some groups will think the state getting control lifts Clean Water Act protections altogether.

In general, he noted, most Idahoans expect clean rivers and lakes, and that a public process involving what is put into those water bodies remains in place.

“I think some in the Legislature think that once the state gets control of this it changes radically and organizations such as my own will no longer be able to participate in the development of permits and the enforcement of permits,” Hayes said. “They’re wrong about that.”

Nelson said she’s aware that the EPA will still be able to come in and take enforcement action, but that she expects the state to be able to handle the new responsibilities.

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