Every time dirt runs off a construction site, it triggers violations of local, state and federal water protection laws.
But it’s a remarkably common sight in cities undergoing rapid growth.
“Sediment pollution is the No. 1 source of impairment of streams and rivers in Tennessee,” says Amanda Garcia, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Tennessee office.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation regulates runoff with its construction general permit, which is updated every five years.
TDEC released the latest version last week, and, compared to its predecessor, it looks about the same.
But a few months earlier, the drafted version prompted public outcry. The state proposed removing site assessments and reducing stormwater-related inspections from twice weekly to once a week.
Critics said that would “invite abuse” and delay pollution detection. Because when you’re using bulldozers and excavators to move around massive amounts of earth each day — and then there’s heavy rain — new issues can emerge quickly.
“Rolling back the protections in this permit when we have this intersection of increasing development pressure and increasing storms and flooding is just a really bad idea for human health, the environment, our buildings and the rivers and streams that we love to swim and fish in,” Garcia said back in July.
TDEC received at least 100 responses to the draft proposal, with individuals expressing fears over expected increases in pollution incidents, more flooding and higher drinking water costs associated with sediment removal.
Construction runoff can also lodge sediment into stormwater drains, coat aquatic organisms with silt and compromise water quality, said Paul Davis, TDEC’s former water pollution control director.
TDEC subsequently withdrew the contested changes, clarified some language and made several improvements.
“We believe the resulting permit is superior to previous versions,” TDEC spokesperson Kim Schofinski said in an email. “It retains the water quality protections of prior permits but is better formatted and more organized to eliminate inconsistencies, redundancies, and potential confusion.
“TDEC agreed with many of the public comments received and made corresponding changes to the permit based on roughly half of those comments.”
The next step in preventing pollution is strong enforcement, Davis said.
Last year, Metro Water Services inspected 363 construction complaint investigations and issued 87 notices of violation. In the first half of this year, 23 of 26 notices of violation occurred at construction sites.
Like all cities, Nashville has limited regulatory staff, but Davis said enforcement is a greater concern in other cities.
“It’s unpopular to be an enforcement agency,” he said. “I can name you a city in Tennessee that the stormwater coordinator says, ‘I can make suggestions, but if I slow the job down, I’ll be in the principal’s office.’ ”
To help agencies identify issues, TDEC encourages citizens to report what they expect are permit violations, either to local government or directly to the state.