Stand and deliver

French Broad Riverkeeper Phillip Gibson is passionate about water pollution.

So the RiverLink staffer thinks it’s vital that citizens attend a public hearing this week to voice their opinions on proposed rules to tackle what he calls the “last unregulated source of water pollution” — contaminated stormwater runoff.

The public hearing will be held Thursday, April 17 in the Simpson lecture room on A-B Tech’s Asheville campus, starting at 7 p.m. It’s one of five public hearings statewide conducted by the N.C. Division of Water Quality. Gibson suggests checking out RiverLink’s stormwater resource page on its Web site (www.riverlink.org/main2.htm) before attending, to get up to speed on the proposed rules.

And though it’s easy to drown in the jargony language of environmental policy, Gibson stresses how vitally important this issue is to human health, trout habitat and the streams and rivers themselves.

“The stormwater rules will help determine how much fertilizer, gasoline, animal waste, oils and pesticides will enter our streams,” he explains. “The question is: How much is allowable, and how will we keep it from getting in our streams? It’s not a matter of whether we should have the rules — because it’s mandated by the EPA.”

Point-source pollution — the kind that emanates from industrial facilities and other pinpointable sources — has been regulated for years under the federal Clean Water Act, notes Gibson. But the proposed regulations target new “nonpoint” pollution sources (such as rainfall hitting a construction site and carrying away soil, or washing petrochemicals and heavy metals off pavement — or even people dumping chemicals down storm drains). And whatever is decided, North Carolina is required to come up with rules that satisfy the federal mandate.

One issue up for public comment is how developed an area can be before structural stormwater controls would be required for any additional construction in that area. The state is seeking public comment on what that threshold should be (the draft rules call for a figure somewhere between 12 percent and 24 percent of the land in an area). The size of these areas has yet to be determined, though Gibson believes they should correspond to the subwatersheds that surround a river’s tributaries. According to the N.C. Coastal Federation (a nonprofit environmental group), overwhelming scientific evidence shows that whenever more than 10 percent of a watershed is covered with impervious surfaces — and no structural stormwater controls are in place — the water quality is significantly degraded.

Other important issues that are likely to be controversial include what specific measures developers will be required to take to prevent post-construction runoff and whether county governments will have to comply with the new rules.

Gibson also worries that if Western North Carolinians don’t make their views known, the mountain region may be saddled with rules more suited to the flatter terrain of the eastern part of the state, which won’t really work here in WNC.

More than 2,000 miles of North Carolina’s streams have “impaired” water quality, according to the state Division of Water Quality, and runoff from cities, construction sites and other land uses accounts for almost two-thirds of that pollution. Of those 2,000 miles, 179 are in the French Broad River basin, including stretches of Hominy Creek and the Mills River, Gibson notes.

“This may be the most important environmental issue in the state this year,” Gibson proclaims. “This is the public’s chance to influence the most important legislation regarding water quality for several years to come.”

Can’t make the public hearing? The state will take written comments until May 16. Comments can be e-mailed to stormwater@ncmail.net or mailed to: Stormwater and General Permits Unit, Division of Water Quality, 1617 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C., 27699-1617.

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