THE Environmental Protection Agency is looking to ramp up recordkeeping requirements under the Clean Water Act (CWA), which could mean additional work for concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permit holders and could also make the information collected more readily accessible to the public.
EPA proposed a rule last Wednesday that would modernize reporting processes for municipalities, industries and other facilities by converting to an electronic data reporting system.
EPA said in a press release that the proposed e-reporting rule would make facility-specific information — such as inspection and enforcement history, pollutant monitoring results and other data required by permits — accessible to the public through EPA's website.
EPA has been planning to publicly release personal information about farmers and ranchers in response to Freedom of Information Act requests as part of an earlier proposed rule regarding CAFO reporting.
Recently, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council sought a court order to stop EPA from releasing certain data until the court can clarify EPA's obligation to keep personal information about citizens private.
Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations at the Farm Bureau, said this latest EPA rule is different from the CAFO reporting rule — but no less concerning.
Parrish said this proposal "appears to be a glide path to making any and all information from permitted facilities available to the public."
He explained that not only does it make information available on facilities that are required to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, but "this proposal makes it easier for EPA to make (the information) public."
Parrish added that if there is any good news, it is that the rule would apply only to permitted livestock facilities, whereas the CAFO rule abandoned last year would have created CWA liabilities for operations that otherwise have no CWA requirements.
However, Parrish said this proposal still poses "significant privacy/food security concerns."
Currently, facilities subject to CWA reporting requirements submit data in paper form to states and other regulatory authorities, where the information must be manually entered into data systems. Through the e-reporting rule, these facilities will electronically report their data directly to the appropriate regulatory authority.
EPA expects that the "e-reporting rule will lead to more comprehensive and complete data on pollution sources, quicker availability of the data for use and increased accessibility and transparency of the data to the public."
Dave Ladd, president of RDL & Associates LLC, said EPA's latest move leaves many questions unanswered, such as: "What 'comprehensive and complete' data on pollution sources will be available, and how detailed will it be when it is released to the public and special-interest groups? Is EPA again inviting intrusion into the lives of farmers and ranchers? Is this similar to the initiative that resulted in the restraining order referenced above?"
The cost of implementing the proposed rule in the first four years after the effective date is approximately $50.6 million, according to the rule. The cost is estimated to drop to $2.9 million per year after that time period, when all regulated facilities will be converted to electronic reporting.
EPA estimates that, once the rule is fully implemented, the 46 states and the Virgin Island Territory that are authorized to administer the NPDES program will collectively save approximately $29 million each year as a result of switching from paper to electronic reporting.
Most facilities subject to reporting requirements will be required to start submitting data electronically one year following the effective date of the final rule. Facilities with limited internet access will have one additional year to come into compliance with the new rule.
Parrish noted that EPA is considering exemptions for rural areas without broadband coverage.
EPA said it will work closely with states to help develop or enhance their electronic reporting capabilities.
The agency has scheduled several webinars already in an effort to help states, trade organizations and other interested parties better understand the details and requirements of the proposed rule. Over the next few months, EPA expects to schedule additional webinar sessions.
There is a 90-day review and public comment period for the proposed rule following its publication in the July 30 Federal Register. The rule can be viewed at www.federalregister.gov/articles/2013/07/30/2013-17551/npdes-electronic-reporting-rule.