Phosphorus’ Final Act
Volume 140, No.7, Friday, August 7, 2015
You care about the regulation of phosphorus in Wisconsin wastewater permits, you just don’t know it yet.
You care because the slow-motion drama between the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and regulated industries such as dairy plants, vegetable processors and paper mills will produce a template that states will pick up nationwide.
It’s a slow-motion drama because current key developments have their roots in seven years of rulemaking, testimony and legislation. Today, Wisconsin is out in front of states seeking to apply water quality limits in the Clean Water Act to municipal and industrial wastewater permits.
The pivotal date in Wisconsin was December 2010, when the Dairy State made the leap from common “technology-based” limits to limits based on water quality criteria at each permitted location. Technology-based limits are based on available technology to remove a nutrient such as phosphorus. Water quality based limits are, in short, lower than that.
And lower costs money. Billions of dollars, in fact.
Quoting an Economic Impact Analysis completed in May by Wisconsin’s Department of Administration: “To comply with the new phosphorus regulations, almost 600 Wisconsin business and municipal wastewater treatment facilities will likely need to invest in additional equipment to adequately remove a sufficient amount of phosphorus from effluent streams. …Including the cost of financing, these capital costs increase to nearly $7 billion over the life of the bonds.”
Wisconsin dairy plants are estimated to face $72.5 million in costs to install technology to remove the last fraction of phosphorus in dairy plant wastewater and incur annual operating costs in excess of $3 million.
In that report, Wisconsin dairy plants are estimated to face $72.5 million in costs to install technology to remove the last fraction of phosphorus in dairy plant wastewater and incur annual operating costs in excess of $3 million.
“When fully realized,” the report states, “the cumulative impact of these additional costs are expected to result statewide in lower Gross State Product, reduced wages, fewer jobs and a smaller statewide population.”
This alarming analysis was mandated in legislation passed by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2014. The bill, signed into law by Governor Scott Walker, called for a statewide variance from these new phosphorus limits. Legislators ordered state regulators to look at the economic impact of the low phosphorus limits and to create a blanket economic variance in Wisconsin if the report found the regulations too hard on the state economy. “Too hard” was confirmed in the Economic Impact Analysis this spring.
EPA ultimately controls and approves any variance from requirements in the Clean Water Act, so this seven-year drama is entering its final act. EPA will spend months, well into 2016, reviewing Wisconsin’s legislated plan for a “Multi-Discharger Variance.”
State regulators are working out the smallest details now at EPA’s request — building a massive “guidance” document that details each new application form for the variance and builds the plan for implementing the variance inside the state agency.
But the slow pace of this opportunity is a serious problem for dairy plants. Wastewater permits are renewed every five years, and the December 2010 water quality limits — 10x lower than the previous technology-based limits — are being drafted into permits. The variance cavalry is arriving too late for some.
In the end, EPA may have to admit an inconvenient truth. The Multi-Discharger Variance is better for Wisconsin’s environment than the limits DNR imposed all at once in December 2010. The variance stair-steps phosphorus limits down across four permit terms. At the same time, it requires permit holders to pay their Wisconsin counties cash to implement nonpoint programs to stop phosphorus from running off farm fields and into state streams and rivers.
Even if EPA approved Wisconsin’s innovative variance idea, some dairy manufacturers wouldn’t qualify.
The state drafted a fairly complex algorithm to determine which counties in the state would face real economic harm from costly phosphorus regulations. In a nutshell, processors based in wealthier counties have a tougher path to gaining the Multi-Discharger Variance.
Some won’t qualify.
In 2016, eight years later, Wisconsin will learn if its journey toward phosphorus regulation ends in immediate implementation of the nation’s lowest limits, or a Multi-Discharger Variance that eases the economic sting and brings the abatement of phosphorus run-off from farms into play.
how the drama ends, because this blockbuster is coming to a government agency near you. JU
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at