TDEC, environmentalists oppose bill revising stormwater rules

Despite opposition from Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, a bill to change state rules on regulating stormwater drainage has won Senate approval and appears poised for House passage as well.

The bill (SB1830) is being pushed by the Home Builders Association of Tennessee. It would effectively loosen the rules for issuance of water quality permits to developers and is sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Curtis Halford, R-Dyer, and Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Steve Southerland, R-Morristown. Basically, it declares that state standards on stormwater runoff can be no stricter than federal standards.

A key effect would be elimination of the so-called “1-inch rule” that’s now in effect across the state, mandating that the permit applicant assure that up to 1 inch of rainfall be absorbed within the development property without any runoff.

Current state standards are based on a 2010 Environmental Protection Agency rule that has since been changed, at least in part thanks to action by homebuilders at the national level, according to Robert Martineau, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The EPA standards were revised in response to contentions that federal law allows EPA to regulate only pollution of water, not the flow of water, said Bill Penny, attorney for the Tennessee homebuilders organization. Penny and others told legislators that the state’s present process makes developers inclined to move their projects across the state line.

Martineau disputed that proposition in testimony to committees and said TDEC has a new rule in the development stages that will actually make Tennessee more development friendly than, say, Mississippi, which is on the verge of adopting a rule almost identical to the present Tennessee standard.

Martineau also contended the bill, if enacted, will “breed confusion and litigation.”

Penny disputed that proposition, saying similar standards have not led to such problems in other states.

Martineau’s concerns were echoed by spokesmen for the Sierra Club and the Tennessee Storm Water Association, which has 63 members statewide, mostly municipalities.

The key phrase in applicable federal law merely says that runoff should be abated to “the maximum extent practical,” they said, and that broad declaration is subject to broad interpretation. A developer, Martineau suggested, could challenge almost any restriction if the bill passes because it is not a specific part of federal law now.

The bill has passed the Senate 32-0 with little debate beyond Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who is running for the 8th Congressional District seat, declaring support for the bill:

“We are used to fighting job-stifling overregulation from Washington. It’s a shame that we now have to fight job-stifling overregulation from our state government,” said Kelsey.

The bill awaits a vote in the House Local Government Committee this week.