Expired Permits Let
Industries Pollute US Waters
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC (ENS) - Officials in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia have allowed critically important water pollution permits to expire, effectively issuing industries a license to pollute, environmental groups reported today.
While the U.S. has confronted many of its water pollution sources, FoE and EWG say permit laws meant to prevent discharges like this are not well enforced (Photo courtesy EPA) Nationwide, about one quarter of all major water polluters - more than 1,690 facilities - are operating without current permits to discharge wastes to the nation,s waters.
The "Clean Water Report Card," released today by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), also concludes that little action is being taken to correct the problem.
Texas had the largest number of expired permits at 135; Louisiana was second with 116 expired permits; and Ohio at 96, California at 85, and Indiana at 81 expired permits rounded out the top five.
Nevada, Rhode Island, Oregon and Nebraska have all let more than two-thirds of their permits expire.
The findings come amidst growing concern that governors of many states and the EPA are not enforcing basic pollution laws. Without up-to-date permits, environmentalists say, states handcuff their environmental enforcement staffs.
The west branch of the Grand Calumet River in Indiana, which suffers from decades of contamination from steel, petroleum, chemical and other manufacturing operations (Photo courtesy Grand Calumet Task Force) Pollution permits are the legally binding agreements with factories and sewage treatment plants that limit the volumes and types of pollution of the nation's lakes and rivers. These permits are the basis of virtually all water pollution tracking and reduction, as well as enforcement of water pollution laws.
Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), the nation's cornerstone water pollution law, permits must be renewed at least every five years. With each new permit, the pollution limits are lowered toward the eventual goal of zero pollution.
The two groups conducted a review of the publicly available water pollution records from the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In 43 states, clean water permits are issued by state regulators; in seven states and the District of Columbia the program is run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They found that 44 states and the District of Columbia have allowed 10 percent or more of their permits to expire.
"Industries and their allies in state governments will whine about the costs of permitting," said Velma Smith, report author and FoE senior analyst. "The fact is that up-to-date permits give businesses the opportunity to modernize the way they control their waste stream, which saves them money."
FoE and EWG rated states on a pass-fail basis, and the grade for each state was assigned based on the percentage of expired permits as of the start of this year.
Clean Water Act permits are meant to prevent pollutant discharges like the one shown in this Lake Erie photo from the 1970s (Two photos courtesy EPA) States with more than 10 percent of their permits expired were failed based upon a 10 percent maximum permit backlog set by the EPA.
The analysis looked only at "major" permits - a designation of those facilities that have the greatest potential to lower water quality due to the volume or type of pollutants discharged.
The groups gave states an extra time cushion, so that any permit they list as expired has been outdated for at least three months.
"If you or I were driving a car or operating a small business without a valid, up-to-date license, we'd be fined or arrested. Factories and sewage treatment plants should not be allowed to operate with expired permits," said Larry Bohlen, director of health and environment programs at FoE. "Government officials need to do their jobs and get these permits up to date."
Under pressure from Congress and the Congressional Inspector General, the EPA has recognized the seriousness of the current Clean Water Act permit backlog. Last year, the agency set a goal of reducing the expired permit backlog to no more than 20 percent by the end of 1999 and no more than 10 percent by 2001.
Water pollution can lead to massive fish kills, like this one in Lake Erie in the 1970s EWG and FoE used those goals in their grading system, but said the EPA,s goals are relatively unambitious. "Expired permits should be the rare exception - not the rule," said the groups.
While an overall backlog rate - covering major and minor permits - might climb as high as 10 percent from time to time in states with large numbers of smaller facilities, the groups said they believe that effective water quality programs should not tolerate any continuing backlog for major permits. "This standard may be ambitious in comparison to current practice, but improving water quality demands it," they said.
EWG and FoE say everyone involved in water pollution permitting - Congress, EPA, state governors, state legislatures and state agencies - must recognize that up-to-date permits are essential to the functioning of the Clean Water Act. They also urge EPA to assess the validity of various reasons that agencies give for backlogs of expired permits, including funding shortfalls and limited staff.
Where a lack of resources is found to contribute to permit backlog, the groups recommend that EPA work with the states to increase fees for permitting programs where appropriate.
Where EPA runs the program, the agency must seek special authorities from Congress to fund the federally run permit programs through new permit fees. If the Congress is serious about eliminating the backlog, they must respond quickly to EPA,s request, say EWG and FoE.
To ensure that polluters cooperate and do their fair share toward getting permit applications processed in a timely manner, EWG and FoE say the EPA and the states should fine facilities that submit incomplete applications and assess higher fees on applications that require time consuming re-review of materials.
The Rio Grande River in New Mexico has been polluted by mine and agricultural runoff (Photo courtesy Amigos Bravos) The EPA and the states should also require facilities to submit renewal applications no less than nine months prior to an expiration deadline, the groups recommend, and higher fees should be imposed for late applications. Polluters with a history of late, incomplete or particularly complex permits should be required to submit their applications even earlier than the nine month time frame.
Current rules allow renewal applications to be submitted up to the permit expiration date, and allow facilities to continue operating under expired permits if renewal applications have been filed. The environmental groups say "this back-door administrative permitting process does not allow for adequate public input, and it should not be used to mask serious problems with permitting delay."
"Without up-to-date permits, how do states think they'll enforce our environmental laws?" asked EWG analyst John Coequyt.
The "Clean Water Report Card" report is available on the web at <
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