Clean Water Report Card for California

Half of California's Major Industrial Facilities Lack Current Water Pollution Permits

Half of major industrial water polluters in California are operating with expired pollution permits, according to an analysis of clean water enforcement data by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Friends of the Earth (FOE). Facilities operating under expired permits include most of the state’s oil refineries and a number of power plants that are dumping a toxic soup of chemicals into the ocean, bays and rivers, including dioxin, lead, mercury, cyanide, arsenic and PCBs.

Analysis of all U.S. Clean Water Act National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for major industrial facilities in California shows that 49 percent of the permits (26 of 53) are expired as of June 2000 and 43 percent (23 of 53) have been expired for at least six months. (Table 1)

Table 1. Half of the water pollution permits for major California industries are expired

Facility Operator City Discharge Permit Expired
Diablo Canyon Power Plant Pacific Gas & Electric Avila Beach Pacific Ocean 01-Jul-95
Richmond Refinery Chevron Products Richmond San Pablo Bay 16-Sep-97
Torrance Refinery Mobil Oil Corp Torrance Dominguez Channel 25-Jan-98
Los Angeles Refinery Tosco Corp Wilmington Los Angeles Harbor 10-Mar-98
Offshore Platform Irene Torch Operating Co. N/A Pacific Ocean 30-Jun-98
Beta Unit (Off shore Plat.) Shell Western E & P N/A Pacific Ocean 31-Jul-98
Watson Refinery Arco Petroleum Carson Dominguez Channel 10-Aug-98
USS POSCO USS POSCO Pittsburg Suisun Bay 15-Sep-98
AES Generating Station AES Hunt. Beach, LLC Huntington Beach Pacific Ocean 01-Oct-98
Offshore Platform Gail VENCO, Inc N/A Pacific Ocean 03-Nov-98
Offshore Platform Grace VENCO, Inc N/A S. Barbara Channel 03-Nov-98
Carson Plant Shell Oil Products Carson Dominguez Channel 10-Nov-98
Heinz Pet Products Heinz Pet Products Div. San Pedro Los Angeles Harbor 10-Apr-99
Antioch Facility Du Pont Antioch San Joaquin River 01-May-99
Samoa Pulpmill Louisiana Pacific Samoa Pacific Ocean 23-Jun-99
Dow Chemical Dow Chemical Co. Pittsburg Suisun Bay 19-Oct-99
Long Beach Gen. Station Long Beach Gen., LLC Long Beach Long Beach Harbor 10-Nov-99
Santa Fe Springs Refinery Cenco Refining Co. Santa Fe Springs Coyote Creek 10-Nov-99
El Segundo Gen. Station El Segundo Power, LLC El Segundo Pacific Ocean 10-Nov-99
Ocean Vista Gen. Station Ocean Vista Power Gen. Oxnard Pacific Ocean 10-Nov-99
Ormond Beach Gen. Station So. California Edison Oxnard Pacific Ocean 10-Nov-99
AES Redondo Beach AES Corporation Redondo Beach Pacific Ocean 10-Nov-99
AES Generating Station AES AlamitosLLC Long Beach San Gabriel River 10-Nov-99
Moss Landing Power Plant Duke Energy LLC Moss Landing Elkhorn Slough 01-Feb-00
Humboldt Bay Power Plant Pacific Gas & Electric Eureka Humboldt Bay 23-Feb-00
Morro Bay Power Plant Duke Energy LLC Morro Bay Pacific Ocean 10-Mar-00

SOURCE: EWG, from U.S. EPA NPDES data, June 2000

The offenders are not small, obscure operations whose paperwork slipped through the cracks, but some of the state’s dirtiest and most high-profile facilities, who have been allowed to continue polluting with expired permits for years. Tosco Corp.’s refinery in Wilmington has been discharging water pollution under an expired permit for 27 months, Chevron’s refinery in Richmond for 34 months and and Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant for almost 60 months.

Los Angeles County, under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, has 10 expired industrial permits, followed by Contra Costa County, under both the San Francisco and Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Boards, with four. Eleven of the facilities with expired permits are discharging directly into the Pacific Ocean. Seven are polluting bays or harbors and three are discharging into the state’s rivers.

When water and sewage treatment plants operated by local or regional governments are also considered, 22 percent (65 of 227) of the major water pollution permits in California have been expired since at least the end of 1999. Although there are far more permits in the state for water treatment facilities than for industrial facilities, about one-fourth of the public facilities have expired permits, compared to well over 40 percent of the industrial sites.

California has more expired water pollution permits than all but five other states. Nationwide, about 25 percent of major industrial and public facilities have expired water pollution permits, but many large industrial states have significantly lower rates of expired permits than California, including New York (four percent), Pennsylvania (11 percent) and Illinois (17 percent). Of the ten states with a comparable regulatory caseload (more than 200 facilities), only Ohio, with 35 percent of permits expired, and Louisiana, with 47 percent, have higher rates than California. (Table 2)

Table 2. California has more major industrial facilities with expired water pollution permits than all but a handful of states.

Rank State Total Major
Facilities with
1 Texas 582 135
2 Louisiana 247 116
3 Ohio 268 93
4 Indiana 175 81
5 Massachusetts* 148 74
6 California 227 65
7 Oregon 76 51
8 Colorado 102 51
9 New Jersey 168 49
10 North Carolina 216 49
11 Connecticut 117 45
12 Illinois 268 45
13 Michigan 181 44
14 Florida 253 42
15 Washington 89 41
16 Pennsylvania 387 41
17 Nebraska 60 40
18 Virginia 145 40
19 Minnesota 85 37
20 South Carolina 191 37
21 Missouri 146 35
22 Tennessee 152 34
23 Iowa 123 31
24 Alabama 211 28
25 New Hampshire* 62 27
26 Idaho* 66 24
27 Oklahoma 93 23
28 Wisconsin 132 23
29 Maine* 93 22
30 Maryland 100 21
31 New Mexico* 34 20
32 Alaska* 77 18
33 Rhode Island 25 17
34 New York 361 14
35 Arkansas 108 13
36 Arizona* 46 11
37 Kansas 58 11
38 Hawaii 27 10
39 Mississippi 86 10
40 West Virginia 93 10
41 Montana 44 9
42 Nevada 10 7
43 Delaware 24 7
44 South Dakota 31 5
45 District of Columbia* 4 4
46 Vermont 34 4
47 Utah 34 2
48 Kentucky 130 2
49 Georgia 172 2
50 North Dakota 26 0
51 Wyoming 26 0
Total   6,613 1,620

SOURCE: EWG, from U.S. EPA NPDES data, April 2000.
* States whose water pollution permits are handled directly by the EPA.

Pollution Permits and the Clean Water Act

Water pollution permits are a crucial component of the U.S. Clean Water Act. They determine how much pollution every factory, machine shop, electric utility, sewage treatment plant or other polluter can dump into the nation’s waters. The terms of the permits are tailored to the size of the polluter, the toxicity or threat of the pollution, the technology available to clean it up, and the quality and size of the waterway receiving the discharges.

The EPA has recently proposed replacing the Clean Water Act permit system with regulations on the total amount of pollution permitted for each body of water, not an individual facility’s discharge. This would force local authorities to limit the amount of pollution discharged by each facility. But the EPA plan faces significant Congressional opposition and would take 15 years to implement.

The goals of the Clean Water Act –"to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters" – will not be met without up-to-date permits. When permits remain expired for years at a time, pollution can continue unchecked, water quality may deteriorate, and progress toward the Clean Water Act’s ultimate goal of "zero discharge" of pollutants is brought to a standstill.

In 43 states including California, Clean Water Act permits are issued by state regulators. In California, overall authority rests with the state Water Resources Control Board, but the permits are administered by nine regional water boards. (The exceptions are oil drilling platforms off the Southern California coast, which are permitted by the EPA.) Permits must be renewed at least every five years, at which time pollution reductions or improved treatment technologies are typically required.

Clean Water Act permits are particularly important in California, where pollution impairs a far greater share of the state’s bodies of water than the nation as a whole. While 35 to 40 percent of the nation’s rivers, lakes and estuaries are considered "impaired" – that is, they do not support swimming, fishing or other beneficial uses – more than 60 percent of California rivers and streams and 80 percent of lakes and estuaries are impaired, according to the EPA’s most recent assessment. Much of this poor water quality begins with the failure to meet deadlines to update and reissue Clean Water Act permits. Two prominent facilities illustrate the problem.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant

Diablo Canyon’s long-expired permit, issued in 1990, allows PG&E to discharge 2.5 billion gallons of hot water, used to cool the plant’s nuclear reactor, into the Pacific Ocean each day. These discharges have caused substantial damage to marine life, wiping out many species of fish and kelp. Diablo Canyon is under the jurisdiction of the Central Coast regional water board.

But PG&E isn’t even complying with the conditions of the expired permit. After an investigation by state and federal regulators, in 1997, PG&E promised in court to stop filing fraudulent permit reports covering up the full extent of the harmful effects of its discharges. In Congressional testimony, a federal investigator said: "The PG&E reports purported to show that the cooling system . . . complied with the Clean Water Act by employing available technology to minimize adverse environmental impacts. Information PG&E left out suggested otherwise. For example, up to ninety percent of larval fish in the cooling water system perish." (FNS 1997.)

Chevron Richmond Refinery

The water pollution permit for Chevron’s Richmond refinery was issued in 1992. Not long after the permit expired in 1997, the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board unanimously resolved that "dioxin pollution is a high priority for immediate action to restore water quality and protect public health." Armed with this declaration, citizens’ groups have repeatedly petitioned the board to prohibit dioxin and PCB discharges from the refinery. But in the absence of a new permit, the board’s "high priority for immediate action" remains only a goal.

The Davis Administration, like the Wilson Administration before it, appears to place a low priority on the water board’s responsibilities. Until the end of 1999, the San Francisco water board often could not meet because Gov. Gray Davis had failed to appoint a enough board members during his first year in office. Now six of the nine positions are filled, but with one member recused from Chevron cases due to a conflict of interest, all five remaining members must be present to constitute a quorum.

Regional and state water board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, making the appointment process and the board’s decisions highly politicized. Davis’s slow pace in appointments means that many important water quality decision are still being made by former Gov. Pete Wilson’s appointees, who presided over a scandal-tinged regulatory system widely viewed as more accomodating of polluters than protective of public health.

Until the end of 1999, when Davis made a flurry of appointments, six of the nine regional boards were without a quorum. As of June 2000, none of the boards has been completely filled. Davis has made 35 appointments to the state and regional boards, leaving 27 Wilson-era appointees and 22 seats vacant. (Table 3)

Table 3. Makeup of California's state and regional water quality boards.

Water Resources
Control Board
State WRCB 2 2 1
North Coast 5 2 2
San Francisco 4 2 3
Central Coast 4 3 2
Los Angeles 4 3 2
Central Valley 4 3 2
Lahontan 3 3 3
Colorado River 4 3 2
Santa Ana 4 3 2
San Diego 2 2 3
TOTAL 37 27 22

SOURCE: EWG survey, June 2000.

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

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.


A number of excuses are commonly given for the backlog of permits – lack of money, regulatory changes, an agency-wide attitude that permits are not a priority. The EPA and the Davis Administration should assess the validity of these issues and provide adequate resources for enforcing the permit system.

The problem is often compounded by industries who take advantage of resource-strapped bureaucrats, or who intentionally delay the process of permit renewal by submitting late or inordinately complex permit renewal applications. To ensure that polluters cooperate and do their fair share:

  • The state and regional water boards must fine facilities that submit incomplete applications and assess higher fees on applications that require time-consuming re-review of materials.
  • Facilities should be required to submit renewal applications no less than nine months prior to an expiration deadline. Higher fees should be imposed for late applications. Current rules allow for submissions up to the expiration date.
  • Polluters with a history of late, incomplete or particularly complex permits should be required to submit their applications earlier than the nine-month time frame.
  • Permits should not be continued just because the polluter has applied for a new permit. This back-door "administrative" permitting process does not allow for adequate public input, and it should not be used to mask serious problems with permitting delays.


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This analysis is based on data from the U.S. EPA Envirofacts database. The Permit Compliance System or PCS database of Envirofacts contains information submitted by the states (or EPA regional offices). EWG’s and FOE’s analysis only considered permits that are categorized by the states and regions as "major," a designation based on toxic pollution potential, pollution volume, public heath impacts, and proximity to coastal water.

It is possible that a few permits listed as "expired" in our national analysis have, in fact, been renewed, since states may be very slow in providing updated information to EPA headquarters. In addition, a few facilities may have ceased operations but remain listed as "active" facilities in the database.

These sorts of data errors are a serious problem. Envirofacts is the central repository for state-collected environmental information, and the Pollution Control System database represents the only assemblage of each state’s data into one collection. It is readily accessible to anyone who has access to the Internet on a computer in his or her home, school, business or local library. It is a vital source of information to local citizens concerned with water quality – but only if it is kept up-to-date.

Friends of the Earth and the Environmental Working Group have graded the EPA regions and the states. States and Regions with more than 10 percent of the NPDES permits expired received a failing grade under our grading system. This grade is based upon EPA’s stated goal of reducing the expired permits to 10 percent.

Based on this scale, both the State of California and U.S. EPA Region 9, based in San Francisco, receive failing grades. The website related to this report – – provides both the grades and detailed information on expired permits for individual states.


FNS 1997. Prepared Statement of Lois J. Schiffer, Assistant Attorney General Environment and Natural Resources Division Before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works: Subject - Enforcement of Environmental Laws." Federal News Service, June 10.

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