State regulators have finalized a decision to ask the Environmental Protection Agency list the Kenai River as a Category 5 impaired water body under the federal Clean Water Act a category listing used to flag water bodies that fail to meet state water quality standards.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation proposed listing the river this fall after water samples revealed hydrocarbon levels in the river have exceeded state standards of 10 parts per billion in the month of July every year since 2000, when testing began.
Supporters of the proposal to list the river have said it will force agencies and user groups to come together to solve a problem has long been neglected. Those opposed to the listing, however, have argued it will unfairly tarnish the Kenai River’s image by categorizing it alongside water bodies with significantly worse pollution problems.
In coming to a listing decision for the Kenai River, the DEC also considered listing the Kenai River under Category 4b of the Clean Water Act instead of Category 5, said Drew Grant, who works with DEC’s water body assessment and reporting.
Category 5 and Category 4 listed waters are both considered impaired, but unlike Category 5 waters, Category 4 waters have water recovery plans.
The DEC considered recent attempts by the Department of Natural Resources and city of Kenai to address the hydrocarbon problem with proposals to remove inefficient two-stroke motors on and at the mouth of the Kenai River when deciding whether to list it as Category 5 or Category 4b impaired, said Lynn J. Tomich Kent, Division of Water Director at DEC.
In the end, however, DEC decided the unpassed proposals were not sufficient for the department to determine the Kenai River has a recovery plan and to recommend listing as a Category 4 impaired water, she said.
“There’s some question and variability as to whether these things are going to kick in (and whether), even with these things happening, we would see a reduction,” Grant said.
“There’s a whole lot of X factors here. If there was more confidence and assurance that these things were going to kick in and fall into place I think there might have been a greater likelihood for the department to put it into a Category 4b.”
The decision to list the Kenai River still has to be approved by the EPA and is not yet final. But the likelihood of the EPA rejecting the DEC’s recommendation is low.
“That typically never happens, it’s usually the states battling the EPA to put waters in a category other than Category 5,” Grant said. “In all likelihood this won’t change and the water will be placed in Category 5.”
For the Kenai River to move down from a Category 5 listing to a Category 4 listing, a recovery plan must be developed. A recovery plan based on a total maximum daily load, or TMDL pollution budget, for example, would drop the river down to a Category 4a listing and an appropriate alternative recovery plan could drop it down to a Category 4b.
But because pollution in the Kenai River has been shown to be caused by motor boats rather than a point source, however, a TMDL recovery plan would likely not be a good fit for the Kenai, Grant said.
“A TMDL is appropriate and it’s very classic for a pulp mill or a sewage treatment plant or what ever ... you’re allocating loads so that they can reduce their loads,” he said. “It’s not a good paradigm for non-point sources (such as) runoff related things. In some instances there’s non-permitted discharges, which is really what it is on the Kenai. All those motors, they’re not required to get permits.”
Agencies and user groups will likely have to get creative as they work toward a plan for solving the river’s hydrocarbon problems, he said.
“The range of remedies could be wide and could be painless or painful,” he said.
Patrice Kohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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