States, Environmentalists Quarrel Over Clean Water Permits
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
State and federal regulators in charge of reviewing factory discharge levels and tightening water quality standards for the nations major industrial polluters are failing to do the most fundamental part of their job, according to a new fifty-state study. But state water officials say that the study by two Washington, D.C. environmental groups twists truth by relying on questionable data and ignoring recent efforts by several states to improve water quality rules and streamline a cumbersome permit system.
Forty-three states now oversee waste discharge permits authorized under the federal Clean Water Act after the rapid transfer of most environmental protection programs to the states over the last decade, according to the Environmental Council of States, a national organization of state environmental officers.
The Clean Water Report Card, released by the liberal-leaning activist organizations Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Working Group last week, flunked pollution permit-renewal authorities in 44 states and the District of Columbia for not meeting backlog-reduction standards set last year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The study found that 25 percent of the 6,700 National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits for "major polluters" municipal and industrial facilities generating high pollution levels with a potential public health impact have expired.
EPA set a 10% permit backlog reduction goal for the end of 2001. The report's authors purposely chose this figure as their measuring stick -- rather than the 20 percent goal EPA set for December 1999 while combing through state data reported to EPA and posted on the agency's Envirofacts online database (http://www.epa.gov/enviro/index_java.html).
The study assigned states a simple mark of "pass" or "fail" based on the 10 percent divide. North Dakota, Wyoming, Georgia, Kentucky, New York and Utah were the fortunate few to receive a passing grade for maintaining permit renewal backlogs lower than 10 percent.
Of these states, New York has the highest number of major polluters with 361. Yet only fourteen major New York facilities are operating with expired permits, according to the study.
Seven states Nevada, Rhode Island, Oregon, Nebraska, New Mexico and Colorado have backlogs topping 50 percent of their total number of major polluters. Of these, Oregon and Colorado reported the highest number of expired permits, with 51 each.
"Over the past year, we've been looking pretty carefully at the implementation of different environmental laws... and what we've found is that, while the states have taken a lot more responsibility away from the federal government, they're doing a really poor job of implementing these laws and enforcing these laws," said EWG's John Coequyt, one of the study's authors.
But that does not take into account the status of the permit program when the federal EPA turned it over to the states, said Tom Kelley of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. It "is a very misleading piece of information," Kelley said of the study.
Texas data through January revealed the highest total of unrenewed federal permits for major polluters with 135. Texas took over the permit program in September 1998.
The study's sponsors say that by using state-collected data and the self-imposed EPA backlog standard they are taking the states at their own word and keeping them on track toward the final goal of the Clean Water Act: 100 percent fishability and swimmability of the nation's lakes and rivers.
Routinely ratcheting down discharge allowances to reflect changing ecological conditions and new waste reduction technology is vital to that goal, Coequyt said.
TNRCC calls the report card misleading "because permit renewal applications were submitted prior to permit expiration dates for each of the 135 facilities." Furthermore, due to a new system of state-generated permits, "of the 546 total major municipal and industrial facilities currently discharging, zero have an expired permit."
The study's authors argue that applications should not substitute for retooled permits but did not address state permits.
Wyoming officials also question the fairness of the report's findings, despite the fact that the state received a favorable grade. Maggie Davison, a supervisor with Wyoming's Water Quality Division feels that hazy jurisdictional lines and problems with exchanges of information between state and federal authorities may often leave an inaccurate impression of the extent of the backlog problem.
"There is some difficulty in assessing how accurate the data is," Davison said. "For a state to be taken to task over data that is inaccurate is not fair."
But the watchdog groups say that precise numbers are beside the point. Even the EPA's reduction goals "are relatively unambitious. Expired permits should be the exception not the rule," the authors wrote.
The Clean Water Report Card is online at http://www.foe.org/cleanwater/grades/.