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EPA sheds paper in revised NPDES reporting rule

Citing a goal to modernize reporting for municipalities, industries and other facilities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to issue a final rule requiring Clean Water Act-regulated entities and state and federal regulators to use available information technology to electronically report data required by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program instead of filing written reports.

When fully implemented, the agency estimates, the 46 states and Virgin Islands Territory authorized to administer the NPDES program will collectively save more than $20 million annually as a result of switching from paper to electronic reporting. The final rule will make facility-specific information, such as inspection and enforcement history, pollutant monitoring results and other data required by NPDES permits, accessible to the public through EPA’s website.

“Electronic reporting will give the public full transparency into water pollution sources, save millions of dollars, and lead to better water quality in American communities,” says EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles. “This rule will significantly reduce the burden and costs of paperwork, freeing up limited resources for states and other regulatory authorities to focus on the most serious water quality problems. After more than two years of working with states and a range of stakeholders, we take a critical step to bring clean water protection into the modern age.”

Adds Environmental Council of the States Executive Director Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, “ECOS is pleased to see a rule move ahead that modernizes how businesses, states, and the federal government interface and share information in the clean water program. Our focus with EPA and the impacted regulated community will be on smooth implementation of this rule, and on developing flexible approaches when needed.”

The Clean Water Act requires that municipal, industrial or commercial facilities obtain a permit to discharge wastewater directly into waters of the United States. The NPDES program requires that permitted facilities monitor and report data on pollutant discharges, and take other actions to ensure such releases do not affect human health or the environment. Some facilities subject to reporting requirements presently 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 data directly to the appropriate regulatory authority.

EPA proposed the e-reporting rule in July 2013 with requisite public comment period. Since then, agency officials have held more than 70 technical and individual meetings with states to review the electronic reporting provisions and identify any issues requiring resolution. In addition, EPA held over 50 webinars and meetings with 1,200 stakeholders to discuss the rulemaking. It will continue collaborating with states as they enhance their electronic reporting capabilities to support the rule’s implementation, while scheduling training and outreach webinar sessions for all regulated entities to provide an overview of the final rule and the next steps for compliance.

In response to state feedback, the final rule provides authorized NPDES programs with more flexibility for implementation, namely more time for the paper to electronic reporting transition plus greater latitude in how they can grant electronic reporting waivers to facilities. Most facilities subject to effluent monitoring reporting requirements will need to start submitting data electronically one year following the effective date of the final rule. A second phase will incorporate electronic reporting for other Clean Water Act measures such as performance status reports for municipal urban stormwater programs, controls on industrial discharges to local sewage treatment plants, and sewer overflows. Also in response to comments and suggestions from states, EPA is providing states with more time to electronically collect, manage, and share this data—up to five years instead of two years as initially proposed.