Seemingly minor wastes pollute US waterways

Old tires. Backyard pesticides. Lawn fertilizers. Oily parking lots. Innocuous though these may seem, they lie behind one of the quietly emerging environmental issues of the 1980s: urban runoff -- the dirt, bacteria, toxic metals, and other pollutants washed off city streets by rainstorms into storm drains and flushed into the nation's rivers, lakes, and harbors.

For the past several decades, the nation's environmental laws have been aimed mainly at curbing traditional sources of pollution, such as industrial wastes and raw sewage. With many of these efforts under way, concern is mounting about so-called ``nonpoint'' pollution sources, of which urban runoff is a major culprit. Nonpoint pollution enters the environment from diffuse sources. It includes everything from the runoff of farm pesticides to residues eminating from mines and city storm drains. A recent study by the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators found that 41 percent of the rivers it surveyed were impaired or threatened by nonpoint-source pollution. More than half of the lakes looked at were similarly imperiled.

While only some of this was because of urban runoff, its contribution to the nation's pollution problems is stirring increasing concern:

In Huntington Harbor, Calif., a prosperous marina community south of Los Angeles, state officials recently found the highest levels of toxic manganese in mussels recorded anywhere in the state. The primary source of the metal -- as well as high levels of lead and zinc -- was traced to storm-drain runoff from inland Orange County. Water-quality officials with the Tennessee Valley Authority are setting up catchment basins and taking other steps to stop polluted rainwater from Knoxville flowing into Fort Loudoun Lake, a key reservoir in that region. The action was taken after recent surveys showed urban runoff was dumping unusual amounts of dirt, bacteria, and toxic metals into the 14,000-acre lake -- in some cases, befouling waters more than local sewage.

Federal studies have shown that urban runoff is responsible for 19 percent of the toxic lead flowing into the Chesapeake Bay each year. San Francisco Bay annually takes in the equivalent of a small oil spill (9.8 million pounds of grease and oil). ``Storm water is not a sexy issue, by any means,'' says Joan Becker, a water-resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. ``But we think it is very significant.''

To varying degrees, city and community officials and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agree. But a brouhaha is developing over how to cope with it. Prodded by environmental groups, the EPA is moving toward enforcing, for the first time, comprehensive regulations governing urban runoff. But city and town officials say the resulting costs could bankrupt local treasuries. Of concern is a set of regulations issued in August that would require communities to apply for permits for municipal storm drains, similar to what they now do for sewage systems. The rules would take effect starting in December 1987. EPA officials say the aim is to plumb the extent of the problem and start controlling it.

But local officials opposed to the regulations -- including the National League of Cities and the US Conference of Mayors -- question how such a diffuse source of pollution can be easily curbed. Critics point out that it may cost $8,500 just to meet each permit application. With more than 1 million municipal storm sewers dotting urban America, that adds up to $8.5 billion. This says nothing of the cost of cleaning up sites, should a problem be found. ``We're having trouble building treatment plants to deal with sewage,'' says Barbara Harsha, a senior policy analyst with the National League of Cities.

EPA officials contend that the new regulations need not be so alarmingly expensive or difficult to meet. They estimate permits should run about $1,000 apiece. They also point out that municipalities could file group applications, rather than licensing each individual storm drain. Comforting though the EPA is trying to be, this agency itself has not always been eager to regulate the urban runoff problem. When the federal Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, it specified that permits would be required for all ``point'' source discharges. EPA exempted storm drains. Shortly thereafter, environmentalists sued the EPA over the exemption, but lost. Ever since, regulations have existed requiring municipalities to get permits for storm drains, but the EPA has been known to be lax about enforcing them.

Now, under renewed pressure from environmentalists, it is moving cautiously toward putting some teeth behind the regulations. ``Localized, urban runoff can be a serious problem that ought to be dealt with,'' says William Diamond, head of EPA's water enforcement and permit branch. ``But it shouldn't reorient everybody's priorities.'' Environmental groups are pushing to have the regulations enforced sooner, while cities are lobbying to get them watered down and delayed beyond the 1987 deadline. A congressional conference committee is expected to take up the issue within the next two months.

Whatever the outcome in Congress is, everyone agrees the problem will have to be tackled at some point. It will not be an easy task. First there's the difficulty of pinpointing where the pollution is coming from and determining who's responsible. Then there's the job of cleaning it up. ``Can you conceive of trying to control the quality of miles and miles of storm drains in Orange County alone?'' asks Joanne Schneider, an environmental specialist with the regional water-quality control board in the area. Some cities, however, are already working to curb the problem. In the San Francisco Bay area, for instance, local water officials are experimenting with using wetlands to absorb pollutants. Other cities are exploring everything from expanded street sweeping to keep dirt and grime off roadways, to using special catchment basins to handle the runoff. Even so, urban runoff appears destined to be one of the ``sleeper'' environmental issues of the 1980s.

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