Thursday, July 19, 2012

Department of Ecology responds to EarthFix post: “Clean Water Act’s Anti-Pollution Goals Prove Elusive”

By Sandy Howard and Larry Altose, Department of Ecology communications

Recent online reporting published in EarthFix takes a critical look at efforts by Washington to enforce the industrial point source requirements of the Clean Water Act. The article focuses in particular on the Washington Department of Ecology’s work to control pollution discharges from a particular firm.

We believe this reporting misses the point with its focus on unaddressed enforcement and reported violations. The real point is how effective are the Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit programs in the various states. For example, states that issue permits without limits on copper will always have fewer violations to respond to than states that have limits on copper. Similarly, lax limits mean fewer violations than more protective limits.

By most objective measures, we believe Washington state has one of the best water quality permitting programs in the country. We have good, largely current/up-to date permits; an effective data management system; field presence with experienced inspectors; knowledgeable and dedicated staff; a comprehensive compliance assurance program which includes inspections; technical assistance, and enforcement, where needed.

While assisting the writer, we provided the following background information that did not make it into the reporting:
Ecology has used administrative orders and permits to move Seattle Iron and Metals into compliance with the State Water Pollution Laws over the past 15 years. The company has responded by working at correcting problems, most lately with stormwater runoff. Ecology is concerned with the high level of pollutants in their stormwater runoff and their dust emissions.

We work with many businesses at correcting problems with pollutants in stormwater runoff, with compliance schedules, administrative orders, and permit requirements. This industrial facility has one of the more severe problems compared to other businesses with controlling pollutants in their stormwater runoff because their industrial process involves the dismantling and crushing of automobiles and other machinery for scrap metal recovery. Ecology’s approach here is consistent with how we have dealt with water pollution from businesses and government entities for decades.

Our enforcement decisions are often subject to criticism for either being too lenient or too severe. We understand the feeling among some people that after the amount of time involved the company should incur heavy fines.

On the other hand, Ecology’s orders and permit requirements have cost the company millions of dollars in compliance costs, very likely more than our ability to fine.

Ecology’s goal is protection of water quality and for this facility to achieve the standards. We use fines when a facility skirts or disregards its obligation to comply. In the case of Seattle Iron and Metals, the company has complied with Ecology orders, permits and other requirements, and pollutant levels have decreased over time. Ecology expects to hold the company to continued progress.

We also recognize that some individuals and organizations oppose the use of mixing zones. We allow this approach on a limited basis, subject to public review and comment, only if an applicant meets specific criteria. We then pursue the reduction and elimination of the mixing zone in subsequent permit renewals.

For more information on mixing zones:

The reporting also referred to Ecology’s water quality assessment. The reference to Washington formally assessing only 3 percent of these waters leaves out some important background we provided the reporters:
Ecology’s current assessment methodology considers assessment data for small segments of stream and rivers – in other words, our state has a more thorough process for assessing polluted waters than other states. Other states may claim entire rivers or watersheds as assessed, however we currently use the township/range/section to identify a “segment” and we are further working to refine our assessments.

While this is a small percentage of the total waters in the state, it is important to keep in mind that the assessed segments are often indicative of problems that are then investigated at a larger watershed level, to determine the extent of the source causing the problem.

For more information on Ecology’s water quality assessment, go here:

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