Settlement forces Oregon to update water pollution permits

In 2017, the state had the worst backlog of expired permits nationwide.

 

On the campaign trail earlier this year, Oregon’s now re-elected Democratic Gov. Kate Brown stumped on environmental issues. She even called on the state legislature to pass its own version of the federal Clean Water Act, to act as a bulwark against the Trump administration’s attempts to blunt environmental protections. There was just one problem: The governor was asking the state to codify a law it is among the worst in the nation at upholding.

Now, that should change. On Nov. 20, a state court approved a consent decree between environmental groups and Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, forcing the state to meet a timeline for issuing updated water pollution permits. The new permits will hold municipal and industrial polluters to modern standards for water quality, doing away with expired permits that, in many cases, sanction higher levels of contamination than updated permits would allow.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown dressed up as a river rafter with her husband Dan Little for Halloween this year, just days before being re-elected. In her latest budget, she requested additional funds for a floundering state agency that has long failed to keep water pollution permits up-to-date.

Factories, municipal water treatment plants and other entities must apply for these permits — called National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits — in order to discharge wastewater into rivers and lakes. In Oregon, as in most states, the Department of Environmental Quality has the authority to issue them under the Clean Water Act.

But Oregon has an abysmal record of carrying out that responsibility. Discharge permits are supposed to be reissued every five years, but in Oregon, many haven’t been updated in more than a decade, and some have languished for more than 20 years. At the end of 2017, more than 84 percent of the permits for major water polluting facilities in the state were outdated, giving Oregon the highest backlog rate nationwide.

In a report to the state legislature in 2016, DEQ Director Richard Whitman cited a consultant’s report that blamed the backlog on poor agency organization and the complexity and expense dischargers face in attempting to meet tighter water quality standards. Critics of the agency, like Nina Bell, the executive director of Northwest Environmental Advocates, one of the groups that settled with Oregon, have blamed the backlog on an agency culture that doesn’t want to hold polluters accountable.

However, there have been signs that Gov. Brown is working to fix those problems. In her latest budget request to the legislature, she asked for funding for 23 additional positions in DEQ specifically to address the permit backlog.

The judgment sets legally binding goals for Oregon to turn around its water-permitting program. It includes benchmarks for reducing the backlog and requires the state to update every permit that is now over 10 years old by 2028. The ruling also has stipulations meant to ensure the quality of the process, so that the state doesn’t erase the backlog simply by issuing hasty or incomplete permits. 

Operating under outdated permits — which businesses and municipalities have been allowed to do — has real consequences for water quality. That’s because old permits don’t reflect updated standards for pollutants like heavy metals and warm temperatures. For example, under an outdated permit, a city wastewater facility could discharge water that is warm enough to kill spawning salmon despite new water temperature standards meant to protect the endangered species.

“The resolution of this lawsuit will bring Oregonians the cleaner water they want, to protect people and salmon,” wrote Bell in a press release following the settlement. “DEQ will be required to actually reduce the pollution in Oregon’s rivers based on the more protective water quality standards the state has adopted for pollutants such as toxic chemicals and temperature.”

Carl Segerstrom is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...