Friday, April 13, 2007

Environmental Advocates Says New York is Violating the Clean Water Act

Environmental Advocates, a group based in Albany, released an interesting and probably important report yesterday that said New York State "is violating the federal Clean Water Act by failing to review the performance of polluters throughout the state."

The problem seems to be that the Department of Environmental Conservation has been so short-staffed, that it made a decision to review only a relatively small number of sewage treatment plants and other facilities that have wastewater discharge permits. From the report:

... more than 1,150 facilities around the state have not undergone the required technical review of their pollution discharges for more than a decade, in clear violation of the federal Clean Water Act. This is approximately 80 percent of the largest and most significant pollution sources in New York, representing tens of billions of gallons of polluted water that’s released every day. Starting in 1992 the DEC began to prioritize which permits it would and would not look at. The agency then made a decision to not review the permits and performance of facilities that were in the bottom 90 percent of those prioritized. Consequently 1,150 polluters have not had their permits reviewed, nor their performance evaluated, in a decade or more....

According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2002 Water Assessment Data, in New York over 1,200 miles of rivers and streams and 284,000 acres of lakes, ponds and reservoirs are listed as impaired. “Given this fact, it’s amazing that the state would choose to not scrutinize the performance of 1,150 facilities that collectively dump tens of billions of gallons of polluted water into the state’s lakes, rivers and streams every day,” said Sweeney.

Environmental Advocates investigations indicate that even facilities that are under consent orders to improve their performance are allowed to escape scrutiny by the DEC. Facilities that the DEC knows are causing or contributing to violations of state water quality standards also are apparently escaping proper oversight.

Here's EA's press release, and here's the report itself. Newsday wrote about it, here, and cited a DEC spokeswoman:

The DEC is aware of the issue but disagrees with the report's characterization of its permit process as "illegal," agency spokeswoman Maureen Wren said in an e-mail. The report noted the agency is reviewing its procedures and adding more enforcement staff, she said.



Blogger Sam said...

This is huge story, Tom. I think you'll find many other states in a similar position, however. Over the last decade two things happened to state environmental agencies: (1) central staff was severely cut, and (2) many facilities were allowed a "permit-light" option. Reductions of a constant 5 percent in state funds caused the first problem. You can't keep trimming the budget and expect better performance.

As to the second problem, "permit-light," that was championed by industry for a long time. The concept that the industry knew how to do business better than the state government, so compliance was diminished to a point where only annual renewal forms were required, along with some cash. Only complaints with known major upsets were ever investigated.

A third problem (3) was cased by computers. You'd think in this day and age of computers you could reduce staff because productivity would be so much better. However, Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS) require that all the data be examined for excursions, mis-calibrations, lock-outs, down-time, and so forth. In most cases the permit reviewer only has the time to examine the front page of the annual CEMS report and it usually looks pretty good on that page, using the Law of Averages.

Dig down a little deeper and just about every permit holder violated their permit in some form or another, sometimes allowable and sometimes egregiously - on purpose. For example, many maintenance night crews would perform clean-outs at night, when it was conveniently dark and the computers were "offline due to maintenance." See how this works? It is just like the old days when the coal boilers would blast their boilers out at night, creating huge plumes of black ash.

The EPA quality assurance rules do require that missing or invalid data have a certain likelihood of what is called an "excursion." However, it is quite modest and is the perfect method for disguising large releases that were "accidental."

I think that many people are starting to notice the effects of the three main causes of the problems we see under "permit-light."


2:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker