Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Bad Day for Idaho Water

The House Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee (on which I sit) met for four hours today, taking testimony on two controversial administrative rules. In the end, the Republican committee members voted to side with industry (and against the public interest, in my mind)--favoring a permanent groundwater exemption for the mining industry and joining the Realtors Association in rejecting a rule that would have brought septic system design standards into the modern age.

I received email from ordinary citizens throughout the state who opposed the groundwater exemption rule. I received just as many messages from people supporting the rule, though none live in my district and every one of them worked in the mining industry. The latter urged me to support the rule in order to protect Idaho jobs, playing on the tired and false dichotomy of jobs vs. protecting our resources and public health.

I joined my two other Democratic colleagues in voting against the mining rule and in support of the septic drain field rule, which was promulgated by the Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and supported by the state's Health Districts.

The problem with the groundwater rule is that in allowing miners to contaminate groundwater for a designated area in perpetuity, you create the risk of that contaminated water eventually migrating outside the points of compliance, thereby posing a public health concern. DEQ can and will monitor mining operations when they're active (and allegedly even after reclamation). The legitimate fear is that many years down the road, when the mining company has shut down its operations, perhaps packed up and left, or perhaps even gone out of business, should a plume of contaminated water move off-site after many years of a slow migration, taxpayers are left holding the bag in terms of clean-up/remediation.

Much discussion and discrepancies regarding the bonds that federal agencies would hold for a mining operation (and the authority that such agencies would have in enforcing groundwater protection) only reinforced my concern that such a rule would be ill-advised without an additional bond that was held by Idaho's DEQ--the only agency with statutory authority to enforce groundwater quality standards (the federal Clean Water Act does not cover groundwater).

With respect to septic systems, the DEQ was seeking to upgrade the septic drain fields dimensions/design parameters to correspond to today's typical household wastewater flow. Approximately 1 in 7 septic systems in Idaho are undersized--not large enough to accommodate the effluent flows that they're handling. Opponents argued that there is no evidence that such undersizing might be causing septic system failures, suggesting that such failures are likely almost always caused by lack of maintenance.

In discussing the technicalities of this rule, we seemed to lose sight of the impetus behind the rule--protecting public health and clean water. It seems logical that septic system standards need to be revised from time to time, as we do with building and electric codes, in response to changing times and increased consumption and demands on such systems. I asked the DEQ representative how Idaho compares to other states; we learned that Idaho has the lowest standards in the country.

The Realtors Association weighed in heavily on this issue, strongly in opposition, as they apparently have over the course of the last seven years. Rep. Wendy Jaquet challenged the Realtors lobbyist's claims that they had tried to work with DEQ on this rule but had been rebuffed. Her incisive line of questioning revealed that in fact no one from the Realtor's Association had participated in the negotiated rulemaking process during which the rule was drafted.

I firmly believe that both of these issues will once again appear before our committee, sooner or later. I hope that we will have a chance to revisit them as I regret that public health and the public good took a back seat to special interests and economic self-interest.

1 comment:

Lori said...

Great summary, Brian. Thank you for looking at the long term implications of the measures and for attempting to weigh in on public health concerns as well as corporate profits.

I always marvel at people who tend to prioritize profit above quality of life - for both humans and animals. It is short-sighted at best. I liken to someone coming into my kitchen, announcing that they will begin using it as a toilet and expecting me not to mind - simply because someone promised them a hundred bucks if they did it. Would that also be acceptable?

I do realize that if the price were high enough and the offer was on the table to share in the wealth I may have to reconsider. But at what point does a person say 'No!' regardless of the potential profit?

There lies the issue, of course. How much is it worth to Idaho citizens? What's your price? It is a bit like selling your soul to the devil.

But we just keep doing it as if the smell won't eventually overwhelm us.