Oregon’s backlog of expired water quality permits is among the worst in the country, meaning the state has let facilities discharge pollutants at levels that may violate current protections for the state’s waterways.
That's the argument of a lawsuit filed in Multnomah County today by two environmental groups seeking to force the state's Department of Environmental Quality to update hundreds of old permits.
Northwest Environmental Advocates and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center want to put DEQ under a court order to update permits that are more than five years old, which is about 40 percent of the permits.
“They’ve been trying to fix it over over 15 years and they have not been successful,” said Nina Bell of Northwest Environmental Advocates. “We want to have them put under a court order so they are required to take this issue seriously and deal with it once and for all.”
Oregon’s DEQ has struggled with backlog of old permits for more than a decade. In 2015, the state 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.
"We completely agree that there's a serious problem with having as many permits that are expired as we have right now," said Keith Andersen, a DEQ water quality advisor.
DEQ has also been reluctant to write permits that demand costly upgrades, such as a million-dollar treatment plant upgrade, particularly for cities that cannot afford them, Andersen said.
"We didn't get here overnight," Andersen said. "Fixing the problem is going to require time and resources. This is going to have to be a comprehensive solution.”
Percent of Active Water Quality Permits
For major water quality permits, Oregon has one of the lowest percentages of "active" permits in the country, meaning a majority of dischargers are operating on outdated and expired permits. Washington has a much smaller backlog, but the quality of its permits has been criticized.
Tony Schick. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The backlog has negative consequences both for the environment and the companies holding the permits.
For instance, an outdated permit does not require facilities to meet water quality standards that might have been adopted or tightened in the years after it was originally issued. It can also hamstring a business that wants to expand or adjust its operations, because the state can’t modify an expired permit to accommodate those changes.
Oregon's percent of active permits is next to last in the country at roughly 26 percent, according to EPA data. But the extent of expired permits is only part of the story, Bell said.
Washington, for instance, has a smaller backlog, with 65 percent of its permits active.
“They appear superficially to look better, but once you look behind the curtain and you look at what those permits really are doing, you realize that there are very few controls required,” Bell said.
But Bell’s organization also filed a complaint in Washington in February over the state’s controls on pollution discharged into Puget Sound.
Citing an obligation for the EPA to intercede when a state fails to uphold the Clean Water Act, the lawsuit aims to force an update to Washington’s water quality standards for toxics that can harm aquatic life.
A spokesperson for the Washington Department of Ecology declined comment.