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 At the end of 2017, more than 84 percent of the permits for major water polluting facilities in the state were outdated, giving Oregon the highest backlog rate nationwide.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
  • 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...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • 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...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.