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One-Fourth of U.S. Facilities Have Expired Permits

Clean Water Report Card for California: One-Fourth of U.S. Facilities Have Expired Permits

March 1, 2000

Nationwide, EWG’s and FOE’s analysis found that about one-fourth of all major water polluters – more than 1,690 facilities – are operating without current permits to discharge wastes to the nation’s waters. More than 770 major facility permits have been expired for two years, and 251 have been expired for five years. Many of these facilities dump huge amounts of highly toxic effluent into receiving waters.

The EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) says the backlog "seriously threaten[s] the success or integrity of [EPA] operations" and that as currently run the permit program does not effectively enforce the Clean Water Act. While a measure of expired NPDES permits is not, of itself, a complete indicator of the quality of a state’s waters or the state’s water protection efforts, a large proportion of permits that have expired can indicate trouble for water quality. The national association of state environmental regulators considers the number and percentage of expired permits a "core measure" of environmental performance in water quality protection.

The OIG report also triggered a congressional inquiry by Rep. Bud Shuster, Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Sen. John Chafee, then-chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In response, last year EPA set a goal of reducing the expired permit backlog to no more than 20 percent by the end of 1999 and no more than 10 percent by 2001. But according to EPA records, nationwide there has been no reduction in expired permits for major water polluters in the two years since the OIG’s report.

In any event, those goals are relatively unambitious – expired permits should be an exception, not the rule. Effective water quality programs should not tolerate any continuing backlog for major permits. This standard may be ambitious in comparison to current practice, but improving water quality demands it.