• The Experts

Why Reasonable Environmental Regulations are Difficult


It sounds easy in many ways because there is a lot of research on just about everything under the sun, a well-defined risk management field of practice for the human and natural environment, and many statutory and regulatory precedents. Use the best that science has to offer and establish some reasonable environmental standards. It sounds easy

The hard part is that there is not enough science, risk is in the eye of the beholder, and the precedents are often conflicting. Staying in touch with the changing regulatory environment is essential for successful project development and delivery.


A great example is from the State of North Carolina’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC). Here we are considering permanent rules for 47 interim maximum achievable concentrations (IMACs) for compounds that impact groundwater. If 47 sounds like a lot, it is. Even worse, many have been ‘interim’ for a decade. Easy, right?


Historically in the United States, water has been environmentally regulated by aquatic standards (what is good for fish and plants) and by human health standards North Carolina is required by N.C. General Statute 143-214.1 and N.C. Administrative Code Subchapter 15A NCAC 02L to adopt groundwater quality standards to protect the use of groundwater as a source of drinking water. Updating the groundwater standards as research supporting understanding human health effects ensures that cleanup requirements are set at a level that minimizes the risk that private well water,.


In North Carolina, groundwater standards are used primarily by the following eight programs: Brownfield Redevelopment, Underground Storage Tanks, Superfund, Solid Waste (landfills), Hazardous Waste, Non-Discharge wastewater treatment and reuse systems, Groundwater Protection, and the Asphalt Testing Program.


The Environmental Management Commission is statutorily charged with using the least of the following criteria:

  1. Systemic/non-cancer threshold concentration

  2. Cancer threshold corresponding to incremental lifetime cancer risk of 1x 10-6

  3. Taste threshold limit value

  4. Odor threshold limit value

  5. Maximum contaminant level

  6. National secondary drinking water standard

Obviously, some criteria is more quantitative than others which introduces some judgment and subjectivity into the decision matrix. In other cases, the science is either still developing or is old and developed with using an outdated approach.


The mix of substances includes metal/inorganics such as antimony, beryllium, thallium, and vanadium – some of which are naturally occurring in nature and groundwater. The list also includes some old and new organic compounds such as acetic acid, acetochlor, bromomethane, n-butanol, propylene glycol, and 1,2,4,5-tetrachlorobenzene, and 2,4,6-trichlorophenol – among others. And of course, there is perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).


In this example from North Carolina, there are 47 compounds, eight impacted programs, six criteria, and science that ranges from emerging to arguably outdated. The listing of new compounds continues to increase faster than the science can keep up.


Complying with environmental regulations on projects and major programs is tough. Making the environmental regulations may be even tougher. Staying in touch with the changing regulatory environment is essential for successful project development and delivery.