Triennial Review Information

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to “hold public hearings for the purpose of reviewing applicable water quality standards and, as appropriate, modifying and adopting standards” at least once every three years. NC last held such a public hearing to update its water quality protections in July 2006. The current hearing is four years overdue. NC lags behind neighboring states in adopting standards that meet the National Recommended Water Quality Criteria and that incorporate the best available science. The EPA has the authority to promulgate regulations to protect NC’s water if NC does not do so itself. Clean water and a healthy environment are vitally important to all North Carolinians – for their health, property values, recreational and business opportunities, etc. NC should not weaken any standards, but should retain its current water quality standards and strengthen them as described below.
Click on one of the sections to find more information about each subject. 

NC Needs Updated Standards for Toxic Heavy Metals


NC is the only state in the Southeast that has not adopted nationally recommended criteria for metals. High concentrations of heavy metals in the environment can poison humans and wildlife. Health risks include: increased risk of cancer, learning disabilities, neurological disorders, birth defects, reproductive failure, asthma, and other illnesses. Heavy metals build up in people and animals over time, which can lead to long-lasting damage. During North Carolina’s last triennial review in 2006, substantial changes to several heavy metals standards - cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, silver and zinc - were proposed by DENR to be updated, but never were. It is past time for NC to adopt the nationally recommended criteria for metals.

NC is the only state in EPA’s Region 4 that has not adopted toxic metals criteria recommended by EPA. Most other states in the country adopted the criteria in the 1990s. EPA imposed the criteria on California in 2000.

NC should use the “dissolved fraction” measurement for metals because it better represents the biologically active portion of the metal (except for selenium and mercury) than does the total or total recoverable fraction of the same metal.

NC should not allow numeric criteria to be trumped by “biological assessments.” Biological assessments help identify existing impairment, while the criteria can be used to prevent it.

NC should adopt the recommended iron criterion (1000 μg/l) instead of a mere “action level.”

NC should adopt the recommended chromium IV criteria of 16 μg/l (acute) and 11 μg/l (chronic) in place of its current single criterion of 50 μg/l.


NC Needs Nitrogen and Phosphorus Nutrient Standards to Protect Waters


Excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous primarily) can cause algal blooms – thick green muck that fouls clear water, reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen, and causes eutrophication and fish kills. Algal blooms can lead to bad taste and odor in drinking water and can cause dissolved oxygen levels to decrease to the point that fish cannot breath and die of suffocation. Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus is a threat to all uses of North Carolina’s surface waters and current methods fail to protect or restore these uses. NC should adopt numeric nutrient criteria, and quickly implement those criteria.

Water quality problems caused by excessive nutrients are widespread across NC. Over 1/3 (36%) of the land area of the state drains to waters classed as nutrient sensitive; other waters, some listed as impaired and others not, are in fact showing signs of stress from nutrient pollution too.

NC should create numerical water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus. Many other states have adopted numeric standards to deal with water quality problems caused by excessive nitrogen and phosphorus. NC instead has a standard for chlorophyll a. Algal blooms cause an increase in chlorophyll a; so it is an indicator that too many nutrients are being added to waters. But chlorophyll a is simply an indicator of a symptom of water quality distress, not a cause. By the time high levels of chlorophyll a are detected, damage has been done to water quality. To prevent damage, NC should monitor and control the cause of algal blooms, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Our chlorophyll-a strategy has not yet prevented a waterbody from sliding into impairment, or restored a lake. Our existing strategy is not working and EPA requires states to adopt numerical nutrient criteria standards, so NC should do so.

In 2001, the EPA required states to set water quality standards sufficient to protect waters from nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. NC has fallen substantially behind science other states in this effort.  EPA concluded in 2010 that our state nutrient plan was no longer adequate. Despite several rounds of broken commitments to EPA, NC has made no progress in adopting numeric nutrient criteria.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution threatens human health and the environment, hurts businesses, costs jobs, reduces property values, ruins recreational opportunities, and otherwise impacts the quality of life for all North Carolinians. Nutrient pollution also costs NC a lot of money in treating water before it can be used.

NC is lagging behind its neighbors in regulating nutrients. According to EPA, NC is the only state in Region 4 without even an approved plan for developing nutrient regulations.

NC should adopt default nitrogen (0.35 mg/l) and phosphorous (0.05 mg/l) criteria now, to apply to all waterbodies statewide while site-specific criteria are developed.

DENR says it will take nearly 7 additional years to promulgate numeric nutrient criteria standards, signaling intent to delay compliance even longer. DENR proposes to launch a 6.7 year process for which funding is not secure and that at best may position the state to propose new numeric nutrient criteria in 2021, with no guarantee that standards will ever be adopted. This proposed timeline is a blatant abrogation of a clear duty. If NC does not take decisive action now, the EPA should unilaterally promulgate nutrient criteria standards.

A site specific approach to nutrient management (advocated by some in the regulated community) would be inadequate. This would be a recipe for infinite delay. Over the last 16 years, NC has taken a basin by basin approach to nutrient management plans. Each plan takes longer and longer until no progress is being made at all. A site specific approach would leave large areas of the state without interim protection, in violation of Clean Water Act requirements for restoring impaired waters and for preventing the degradation of waters that are currently meeting their designated uses.

There is an alternative to endless delay. The state should set a statewide default numeric standard for nitrogen and phosphorus in 2014, as a part of the triennial review. Regulators could announce a grace period before implementation, during which jurisdictions (or discharge associations) could propose science-based site-specific standards that could then displace statewide defaults in those watersheds.


North Carolina Should Adopt a Methylmercury Standard


Mercury deposited into water bodies can be transformed into methylmercury (an organic form of mercury) via microbial activity. NC does not regulate methylmercury even though it is the form of mercury that presents the greatest threat to human health through consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish.

Methylmercury is highly toxic to humans. Fetal, infant, and childhood exposures to methylmercury can cause lifelong damage, including impaired neurological development. newborns, effects of methylmercury exposure include cerebral palsy-like symptoms, mental retardation, and other severe neurological problems.

NC lacks a methylmercury rule even though EPA recommends a standard for protecting human health (0.3 mg/kg of fish tissue). Methylmercury is a neurotoxin, especially for fetuses. Eating contaminated fish and shellfish is the primary route of human exposure to methylmercury. The population at highest risk is the children of women who consume large amounts of fish and seafood during pregnancy, and may result in an increase in the number of children who have to struggle to keep up in school and who might require special education.

NC should adopt a methylmercury criterion that meets or exceeds the national recommendation of 0.3 mg/kg of fish tissue to protect human health, while retaining its standard for inorganic 2, 4 D (chlorophenoxy herbicide)


North Carolina Should Strengthen Water Quality Standards to Comply with EPA Recommendations


The chemical compound 2, 4 D (chlorophenoxy herbicide), when consumed by humans, can cause serious health problems affecting the liver, kidney, and adrenal glands. NC should lower its standard for 2, 4 D from 100 μg/l to 70 μg/l in waters used as sources for drinking water and food processing purposes in order to comply with federal law, meet the Safe Drinking Water Act standard, and protect the health of North Carolinians.

NC currently has no water quality standard for ammonia. The toxicity of ammonia depends on the temperature and pH of the water and the life stage of the affected fish, mussels, and other wildlife. Accordingly, EPA recommends an ammonia standard that fluctuates based on those parameters to protect aquatic life. NC should adopt EPA’s recommendations for both acute and chronic standards for ammonia.


Water Quantity or Flow Should Also Be Protected


Sufficient quantity of water is as important as sufficient quality to sustain the important uses of NC’s rivers, including drinking water supply, swimming, fishing, boating, and wildlife. NC’s rivers support a recreational tourism industry that depends on healthy instream flows.

NC should add explicit protections for instream flow to its water quality standards instead of relying on “regulation by implication.”

NC should use more protective flows when calculating water quality based effluent limitations.

NC currently bases discharge permit limits on 7Q10 flows (the lowest seven-day average flow expected in ten years), but should use 1Q10 flows instead, at least for toxic substance standards.