science environment

Court Orders Oregon DEQ Action On Expired Water Quality Permits

By David Steves (OPB)
Nov. 28, 2018 10:23 p.m.

Oregon’s “zombie permits” for water pollution discharges are going away.

The Multnomah County Circuit Court on Wednesday ordered the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to start issuing new water pollution permits to replace older ones that have expired. The court's action was in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups. They had complained that the Oregon DEQ was allowing industrial and municipal polluters to continue discharging waste into rivers and other waters under out-of-date permits.


The federal Clean Water Act requires regulators to reconsider permits every five years. But the DEQ has allowed entities to continue discharging waste under the terms of about 160 permits that are at least 10 years old — and some permits are older than 25 years old, according to Northwest Environmental Advocates, one of the groups that sued the state agency.

Critics have referred to these as “’zombie permits’ because they seem to live forever,” said Nina Bell, the advocacy group’s executive director.


When Bell's group and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center at Lewis & Clark College filed the lawsuit in 2017, they said Oregon's backlog of expired water quality permits was among the worst in the country, meaning the state had let facilities discharge pollutants at levels that may violate current protections for the state's waterways.

These out-of-date permits “have allowed polluters to avoid meeting modern standards for pollution controls,” she said. “The resolution of this lawsuit will bring Oregonians the cleaner water they want, to protect people and salmon.”

Oregon’s DEQ has struggled with backlog of old permits for more than a decade. In 2015, the Legislature directed the agency to hire an outside consultant to review its water quality permitting program.

The consultant report concluded DEQ lacked appropriate staffing to write permits, often failed to coordinate properly the scientific and regulatory efforts needed to issue a new permit.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, a DEQ official told OPB that his agency agreed that the number of expired permits represented a serious problem and that it had been reluctant to write permits that demand costly upgrades for cities that can't afford them.

Gov. Kate Brown took a separate step to address the backlog of old permits on Wednesday when she presented her proposed state budget for 2019-21. It included proposed funding for 23 positions in the DEQ "for the primary goal of reducing the backlog and increasing timeliness of overall permit processing."