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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 At the end of 2017, more than 84 percent of the permits for major water polluting facilities in the state were outdated, giving Oregon the highest backlog rate nationwide.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.

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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