Federal Geothermal Water Quality Assessment(14-FD)
Pursuant to the Clean Water Act, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are responsible for protecting water quality that may be affected by geothermal projects. In some cases the EPA delegates permitting authority to state agencies. Otherwise, the EPA retains administrative authority to issue permits that may allow for stormwater discharges during construction, the discharge of pollutants at any time during a project, or the utilization of underground injection wells. Similarly, the USACE retains authority in most states to administer 404 permits for any geothermal project that discharges dredge or fill material into waters of the United States.
Stormwater Construction General Permit
Geothermal projects that involve construction sites disturbing one or more acres of land or smaller sites that are part of a common plan of development or sale are required to obtain a Construction General Permit under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) as required by 40 CFR 122.26(b)(14)(x) and (b)(15). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authorized certain states to implement the NPDES program and issue their own permits for stormwater discharges associated with construction activities. The EPA is the permitting authority in Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia. Geothermal projects in those states may require a NPDES general permit from the EPA. In addition, the EPA is the permitting authority for federal operators in Colorado, Delaware, Vermont, and Washington; and on most tribal lands.
EPA NPDES Permitting Process
For the states listed above that do not have authority to administer NPDES, the EPA administers NPDES in a uniform manner pursuant to 40 CFR 122. Developers will apply for either an individual or general NPDES permit and the EPA facilitates public notice and comment prior to issuing any permit. The EPA will not issue a NPDES permit unless the developer has obtained a 401 water quality certification from the applicable state.
Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, authorization from the USACE is required for the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, including wetlands. 33 CFR 328.3(a) defines “waters of the United States.” Administration of the 404 program is guided by the rules and procedures in 33 CFR 320-332. Developers should initially determine if the geothermal project will cause any discharges to waters of the United States. If the geothermal project will not cause any discharges, a 404 permit is not required.
Certain projects may qualify for one of the more expeditious general permits: Nationwide Permits, Regional General Permits, and Programmatic General Permits. Developers should contact the USACE district office where the geothermal project is located to ensure compliance with any district-specific requirements as part of a general permit. Geothermal projects that cannot meet the terms and conditions of a general permit require an individual permit.
EPA UIC Process
The EPA Underground Injection Control (UIC) program is responsible for regulating the construction, operation, permitting, and closure of injection wells that place fluids underground for storage or disposal. Geothermal electric power wells are classified as Class V wells and either regulated by an individual permit at the state level or at the federal level by rule under 40 CFR 144.24. The EPA regulates Class V injection wells on Federal lands, many tribal lands, and in Alaska, Colorado, and Montana. For any geothermal project that utilizes an underground injection well on federal/tribal land or in the aforementioned states, the developer must obtain a permit from the EPA if required by the director of the EPA. In addition, the developer may voluntarily request a permit. If the developer does not request a permit and the director does not require a permit, the developer is only required to submit a well inventory report. 40 CFR 144.26.
Determine Which Federal Permits Apply
Use this overview flowchart and following steps to learn which federal and state permits apply to your projects.
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