In just a few weeks, on Feb. 1, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin a four-year enforcement rollout of the first national guidelines for limiting effluent discharge from rainstorms at construction jobsites.

Those guidelines, which the agency finalized in December, include the first numeric limits on turbidity, which measures water clarity, for construction activities that disturb 20 or more acres.

But EPA has left many details about measurement and monitoring procedures to individual states, even for items as fundamental as what constitutes soil stability. This leaves the door open for proactive builders, developers, and their respective trade groups to get ahead of the new regulations before they go into effect.

Jesse Pritts, an environmental engineer with EPA’s Office of Water, used the International Builders Show in Las Vegas on Wednesday morning to provide a summary of the stormwater guidelines, which affect all land under construction over one acre that needs a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems construction stormwater permit.

(Rules will not be fully implemented until all state and EPA general construction permits have expired and are reissued with the effluent limitation guidelines. See chart below for the years when such permits expire in various states.)

To comply, builders and developers must show they are exercising best management practices in six categories:

  • erosion and sediment control

  • soil stabilization

  • dewatering

  • pollution prevention

  • prohibited discharges (such as wastewater than includes cement and stucco), and

  • surface outlets that withdraw water when discharging from basins or impoundments.

These non-numeric requirements, Pritts said, probably won’t require most builders and developers to change what they are already doing. But the “big change,” he said, is the responsibility placed on builders and developers to monitor and contain stormwater turbidity. Discharges from construction that disturbs 20 or more acres, contiguous or not, can’t exceed an average turbidity level of 280 Nephelmetric Turbidity Units (NTUs). The compliance deadline for this is August 2011, and EPA expands the effluent limit to construction that disturbs 10 or more acres in February 2014.

The one exemption to the regulations is if a jobsite is hit by rainfall that exceeds a two-year 24-hour storm criterion.

Pritts pointed out that EPA’s motivation for introducing these guidelines is to reduce the amount of tainted effluent that returns to the country’s water system, as turbidity is toxic to aquatic organisms and fish.

He offered several turbidity control recommendations that revolve around sediment settling, filtration, polymer “flocculation” (i.e., the addition of solid or liquid polymers to the effluent to separate sediment from water), and water treatments, each with its own technological and cost characteristics and effectiveness.

Pritts conceded that EPA can’t say for certain yet whether these mitigation techniques will help developers meet the 280-NTU limit on a consistent basis, which means that builders and developers might need to go through a period of trial and error before they find the right combination of procedures that will keep their specific jobsites in compliance.

While EPA is leaving monitoring and compliance protocols to the states, the agency’s rules include monitoring and testing guidelines that call for drawing a minimum of three effluent samples per day at each discharge point and generating monthly discharge monitoring reports.

“The sea change is the numeric limit,” observed Charles Ellison, a vice president and engineer with McLean, Va.-based Miller & Smith Homes, who was on the IBS seminar panel with Pritts. “This is something the states must comply with, and it’s going to cost us more money” for equipment, personnel, monitoring and testing. He cautioned that noncompliance would risk fines and criminal penalties. Ellison also noted that some states, like Maryland, are considering imposing NTU limits as low as 50.

Ellison’s recommendations for meeting the new guidelines start with designing and managing construction sites to reduce runoff before it happens. He recommended that builders should consider redundant sediment control systems, such as “super’ silt capture fencing, as well as mechanical treatment systems “that may be needed more than anticipated.” He estimated that rental fees on this equipment can run anywhere from $3,000 to $18,000 per month.

He said stormwater management boils down to “planning for Mother Nature,” by designing sites with engineers and land contractors and stabilizing land on those sites through seeding and other preventive measures. As the job of limiting stormwater falls more on their shoulders, builders and developers will need to keep better records and identify someone within their companies who is charged with policing jobsite compliance.

“You have to keep thinking ahead, because [the guidelines] are going to change the way we do business,” Ellison said.

Bruce Boncke, president of BME Associates, a Fairport, N.Y.-based land development and construction services company, sees EPA’s new regulations as an opportunity for builders and developers to work with municipalities that share their concern about stormwater runoff and environmental protection. He pointed specifically to a four-hour-long online training program that the New York State Builder Association out together in tandem with state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Current effluent limitation regulations in Rochester, N.Y., add between $2,000 and $2,500 to the cost of building a house. Boncke estimated that the implementation of the EPA guidelines “could double that.” Consequently, early involvement by builders and developers could give them greater influence and possibly leverage with local and state agencies that are often understaffed.

Boncke asserted builders and developers “need to put stormwater management on their due diligence list” prior to purchasing land and include costs and land use into the purchase price. He suggested that compliance is likely to compel more developers to stay out of areas “that will put you at risk.”

Other mitigation recommendations include “greening up” construction sites with more vegetation even before framing begins, designing neighborhoods with shorter roads with no guttering, and reducing or eliminating cul-de-sacs. Finally, Boncke said builders and developers should develop “crisis management” plans “that include the community.”

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

State Stormwater Permit Expiration Dates

States (Expiration Year)

South Dakota, Maine, Alabama, Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, North Dakota (2009 or already expired)

Connecticut, New York, Oregon, Washington, Tennessee (2010)

Delaware, Wyoming, Vermont, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, Arkansas, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Idaho, Massachusetts (2011)

Missouri, New Jersey, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nevada, Iowa, Hawaii, West Virginia, Nebraska (2012)

Arizona, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Maryland, Georgia (2013)

Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, California, Louisiana (2014)

Source: U.S. EPA