Battening down the hatches

May 1, 2018
Tightening regulations around rainwater runoff could impact every industrial facility across the US, with legal actions already on the rise.

US industry faces stricter stormwater rules

Tightening regulations around rainwater runoff could impact every industrial facility across the US, with legal actions already on the rise.

By Erin Partlan

New standards are expected to be modelled on those in California and Washington

Every manufacturing operation in the US, from concrete ready-mix plants, to distribution centres, to food and drink plants require a stormwater permit to operate. The requirements under the permits are numerous, taking in training, record-keeping, inspections, sampling, and in some cases, employing treatment systems.

Federal regulations covering stormwater flows from industrial sites currently focus broadly on requiring companies to undertake monitoring and record-keeping rather than treat and remove contaminants. Regulations are expected to tighten significantly as a result of a settled lawsuit against the EPA.

New standards are widely expected to be modelled on those in California and Washington, where sites breaching discharge limits for pollutants are required to take corrective action. This is anticipated to stimulate the market for compliance software, sensors and in some cases, advanced treatment.

In the meantime, law firms are among the biggest winners. The US Clean Water Act enables private citizens to pursue actions against companies for violating their stormwater permits. California has already seen a deluge of lawsuits from a combination of environmental groups and enterprising law firms. In a recent webinar, Mapistry, a California-based consultancy, pointed out that the number of 60-day notices served to companies has increased by 260 percent since 2015, and forecasts that by 2020, 22 percent of all industrial facilities in the state will have been affected.

Legal risk to businesses

Industrial sites are already incentivised to manage stormwater in order to minimise financial and operational risk. Under the Clean Water Act in the US, a provision allowing for citizen lawsuits enables members of the public to sue a company on behalf of the public and regulatory agencies for not following stormwater permits adequately.

Within California in particular, the number of lawsuits is on the rise. During the first week of July 2017, 33 cases were filed, up from an average of two or three per week five years ago. A rise in stormwater-related litigation reflecting the trend in California is also likely to take place throughout the US. Companies failing to pay attention to these developments face significant financial and operational risks.

Record-keeping and permitting requirements

The current federal stormwater general permit includes the following requirements: training, record-keeping, inspections and sampling.

Current federal guidelines do not stipulate site benchmarks and instead the primary goal is monitoring to determine whether a receiving water is impaired. A tightening in legislation is anticipated to result in an increased demand for technology solutions such as software applications to create maps and manage the information to plan out how to follow the permitting requirements.

Burden on plant managers vs the role of software

A manager of a manufacturing plant may have responsibility for environmental compliance, but is unlikely to be an expert in wastewater and stormwater issues. Therefore, the risk of significant financial penalties arising from a lawsuit to the company will mean that plant managers will need to be educated in the issues around managing heavy metal content of stormwater run-off which can contaminate nearby surface waters, for example. Technology-wise, software plays a major role in streamlined record-keeping and reporting.

The next five years: market opportunities

The market surrounding industrial stormwater treatment deals with helping facilities meet their permit requirements, which are currently sampling, reporting, and, if necessary, treatment. The following are three areas of technology applicable to industrial stormwater management in their order of relevance.

Since federal guidelines primarily relate to monitoring, records-keeping is by far the largest component of permit compliance, and is likely to remain so, even with tighter remediation or treatment requirements. Software and data management systems assist sites in meeting requirements through applying for site permits and maintaining records on sampling and inspections.

Plug-and-play sensor systems

Sensors can make permit compliance easier through automated or on-line sample measurement. However, the need for sensors as a technology solution will only come into play if current sampling methods become burdensome or insufficient, and without such drivers the market for convenience remains small. A need for sensors, would most likely be driven by lowered TMDLs and requiring reporting at lower concentrations.

Sites will not generally collect more information than required to meet compliance. However, if sensors can make sampling and record-keeping easier and more cost-effective, they will gain a market advantage. Sensors connected to a data acquisition network, and especially interfacing with existing software-based management tools, can be marketed towards sites managing industrial stormwater. For example, systems from companies S::CAN and Real Tech are leading the way in combining online sensors with data acquisition/visualization.

Treatment technology

Treatment technology for industrial stormwater spans the entire treatment train, from coagulation and sedimentation or sand filtration to polishing. Treatment technology plays the smallest role, not only because of the (currently) less stringent federal guidelines, but also because, unlike in municipal stormwater, treatment technologies require no certification. This means that relatively low-tech treatment processes are not in demand because they can be either built on-site by facility staff or commissioned at low cost. Demand for treatment technology will be focused in the more advanced polishing steps, whether with activated carbon, zeolites, or ion exchange resins, due to stringent limits on pollutants like chromium, lead, and other heavy metals.

Market barriers: Cost of treatment and DIY methods

Due to the lack of certification requirement, lower-cost treatment options are readily available for industrial facilities. In addition to steeper competition among technology suppliers, it also opens the door for DIY approaches. An out-of-box solution works especially well in manufacturing sites where existing employees already have skills in fabrication and assembly and can be instructed in creating and maintaining simple treatment unit processes, such as media filters and adsorbers, to manage stormwater contaminants.

Water reuse systems

Streams of non-potable water are valuable on industrial sites where many activities have lower requirements on water quality. Collected stormwater can additionally serve for tasks such as rinsing and dust suppression. Systems designed for on-site reuse of stormwater can gain traction where some treatment is needed before reuse or where collection and distribution are difficult due to site topography.

Regulations: Current status

Currently, industrial sites in the US are required to comply with stormwater monitoring under the Multi-Sector General Permit (MSGP). Federal guidelines list a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for the receiving water, but do not provide site-specific discharge requirements.

As a result, high loadings do not necessarily require any corrective action by an industrial facility. Additionally, while best management practices (BMPs) are suggested by the EPA, treatment technology for industrial stormwater does not require certification and industrial sites are allowed to undertake any practices for stormwater treatment.

In contrast, California and Washington differ from the federal guidelines and require sites to meet discharge limits, and to take action to remedy any exceedances. California and Washington have site benchmarks accompanied by exceedance response actions. There, in the case of recorded high loadings, sites are required to follow a step-by-step corrective process which typically involves the installation of best management practices or other control techniques.

Upcoming regulation shifts

The rest of the states either fall under federal permitting jurisdiction, or simply use federal guidelines in state permit requirements. A recent settlement between the EPA and environmental groups is obliging the agency to review its permit guidelines and explore improvements. The National Academy of Sciences has conducted a study and published its input to the EPA, which is now open for public comment. As a result of this review, the federal guidelines are anticipated to shift to align more closely with those of California and Washington, meaning that sites with benchmark limit exceedances will be required to take corrective action.


Software and sensor companies will thrive in the industrial stormwater market if they focus on helping facilities to meet compliance more efficiently.

Expert knowledge of changing regulations, technology designed with ease-of-use in mind, and respect for on-the-ground site crew are components of a winning proposition. Under anticipated revised regulations, simple treatment technologies will be the most valuable.

For innovative technologies, there is potentially space in the market for technology that satisfies multiple site requirements, such as sensor-enabled treatment processes that reduce loading and also assist in records-keeping.

Erin Partlan is a water technology research analysis at BlueTech Research. BlueTech’s latest BluePrint: US Industrial StormWater Management examines the opportunities and actions needed for this growing area.