The anticipated costs to contractors to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final rule addressing stormwater runoff on construction sites outweigh any benefits to water quality, say industry representatives. Critics charge the new rule, published in the Dec. 1 issue of the Federal Register and which will go into effect on Feb. 1, 2010, imposes new costs and burdens on builders while doing little to address water quality.

EPA and environmental advocates say the new rule, required under a 2006 court order, will help reduce pollution from construction sites into the nation’s rivers and streams. The final rule requires all construction sites that must obtain permits to use a range of erosion and sediment best-management practices to control sediment and soil runoff in stormwater. It establishes a numeric limit of 280 nephelometric turbidity units (NTUs) for all sites that disturb 20 or more acres of land at one time, beginning on August 1, 2011, and for all sites that disturb 10 or more acres, beginning in February 2014. These sites must sample stormwater discharges and comply with the numeric limitation or face penalties from state water pollution administrators. EPA says the new requirements will reduce the amount of sediment discharged from construction sites by about 4 billion pounds each year.

Construction industry sources say the estimated costs of the program—$953 million annually—outweigh any benefits. Sean Thurman, regulatory affairs manager for the Associated Builders and Contractors, says, “It will be difficult, if not impossible, to absorb the costs,” particularly for small firms, which he says could be forced out of business.

Ben Gann, the National Utility Contractors Association’s coordinator of government affairs, adds that the 280-NTU limit might be difficult to achieve. “There is concern about whether those standards can be met through passive treatment,” he says.

Joe Robson, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, says, “That’s a standard that no builder, anywhere, can consistently expect to achieve, and EPA’s own studies show it’s not the answer to reducing pollutants in our nation’s waters.” He says the additional requirements will be more difficult to achieve on smaller lots and urban redevelopment, which could negatively impact “smart growth” projects and transit-friendly building.

But Jon Devine, a senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, which filed a lawsuit in 2004 to force EPA to issue a rule, says NRDC would have liked a threshold lower than 280 NTUs. Four states have set numeric limits below that number. “That shows that lower thresholds are achievable,” he says.

Overall, he says the rule will help reduce pollution in rivers and streams. “For the first time, builders across the country will have to take steps to keep dirty soil and sediment from entering waterways in compliance with enforceable, measurable and objective standards,” says Devine.