BOISE, Idaho — Idaho will take over regulating pollution discharge into the state's lakes and rivers from the federal government under an agreement signed Tuesday by the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the agreement was the culmination of a tremendous amount of work and partnership between the state and the federal agency.
"Congratulations to the state of Idaho," he said. "We are excited to sign this and look forward to working with Idaho as we go forward on these issues."
Pruitt signed the agreement at the Idaho statehouse with Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter. It shifts control of permitting and enforcement aspects under the federal Clean Water Act to the state starting July 1.
"It's good to have Idahoans making decisions about Idaho issues," Otter said.
Idaho is one of only four states where federal authorities manage pollution discharge into surface waters. The others are: New Mexico, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Idaho officials say a state-run program will be more responsive, and local experts who are better acquainted with Idaho will be making decisions.
However, Idaho can't write permits that are less stringent than the EPA permits, and the EPA retains oversight of the program.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality will acquire additional responsibilities through 2021 for issuing pollution discharge permits to cities, industrial businesses, mining operators, animal feedlots and others.
"I have no reservations about us having the people and the resources to be able to administer this program effectively and appropriately," said John Tippets, director of the state agency.
The change delegates authority to Idaho to implement its Idaho Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a goal set in the late 1990s.
Idaho lawmakers in 2014 directed the state Department of Environmental Quality to seek authorization from the EPA for a state-run program. A public process followed, culminating with a 325-page application last August and Tuesday's signing by Pruitt.
The added duties mean the state has to more than double the number of workers in the program to have the equivalent of 29 full-time positions at a projected cost of $3 million annually. Idaho lawmakers in recent years have been approving funding.
About two-thirds of the cost of the program will come from the state's general fund, with the rest from fees on those seeking permits, said Mary Anne Nelson, the system's program manager.
She said 22 workers are on board, with four more being hired this summer and three more next year. She said workers have been in the field with EPA permit writers and compliance officers.
"We've been doing all of this job shadowing in preparation for taking on the program in July," she said.
Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental watchdog group, said the group overall backed the change.
The main benefit, he said, is that more permits will be examined by the state rather than administratively approved without much review by the EPA, which Hayes said is understaffed and underfunded in Idaho.
"There is some real upside in the state doing this," he said but added the group was wary of the potential of pressure being put on the state agency to favor polluters.