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Water Quality Standards Could Cost Local Government $6 Billion, Study Says

September 08, 2010

Expensive wastewater facility upgrades may be the only technology "that can reasonably assure compliance"
Raleigh -- Compliance with proposed new water quality standards could cost N.C. local governments more than $6 billion over the next 20 years, according to a technical assessment recently completed.  The study, commissioned by the Municipal Environmental Assessment Coalition (MEAC) and completed by the engineering firm Stearns & Wheler, looked at the cost of complying with proposed new state limits on heavy metals in state waters.

The federal Clean Water Act requires each state to review and revise surface water quality standards every three years, and this process is known as the triennial review. The state’s Division of Water Quality proposed amendments to the standards to the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, and Sept. 7 was the deadline for public comments.

A group of more than 130 cities and towns formed MEAC, through the N.C. League of Municipalities, to ensure that accurate data and analysis is available as the standards are revised. The changes place new limits on levels on discharge of heavy metals, with the most significant changes proposed for allowable discharges of cadmium and chromium.

The Stearns & Wheler study examined three alternatives for complying with proposed standards for heavy metals. For the nearly 300 N.C. local governments that own and operate wastewater treatment plants, compliance costs were estimated between $590 million and more than $6 billion, depending on the treatment method used. The study determined that the only alternative “that can reasonably assure compliance” would cost more than $6 billion over a 20-year period.

Stearns & Wheler also studied the sources of heavy metals in a sample of cities and towns that included large cities and small towns and municipalities in all parts of the state. It found that, except in one case, industries were not the source of these metals. Previously, it was assumed that industries were the major contributors and could be required to take additional pretreatment steps to reduce the level of metals. As the study states: “In the vast majority of cases, industrial users are not contributing metals to collection systems at levels to warrant additional pretreatment. As such, the burden of compliance will essentially be the responsibility of municipalities, and by extension rate payers.”

NCLM Executive Director S. Ellis Hankins noted, “If the state adopts these water quality standards for metals as proposed, municipal sewer customers will pay significantly higher bills. The costs for wastewater treatment continue to escalate as additional costly regulations require more and more to be removed from the water. Those costs get passed on to the users and we need to do all we can to minimize those costs while ensuring water quality. For some of these substances, there is not a demonstrated environmental benefit for more stringent standards.”

Hankins also noted that the proposed standards are far more stringent than EPA-recommended drinking water standards. “The state is proposing a limit on copper in treated wastewater that is 1,000 times more stringent than the corresponding drinking water standard. For zinc, the standard is 10 times more stringent, and for silver, 10,000 times.”

Based on this study, the League has provided comments to the state on the potential costs of the proposed regulations. A second phase of the MEAC-commissioned study will identify alternative policies that would reduce the financial impact on local governments.

The N.C. Division of Water Quality will be analyzing comments received and preparing recommendations on the proposed standards to be presented to the N.C. Environmental Management Commission.

Read details on the Triennial Review Impact Assessment (N.C. local governments).

For more information on the state’s review of surface water quality standards, go to

Posted on September 08, 2010 by Erin Wynia