Citing pollution problems in Puget Sound, an environmental group is asking the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke Washington state’s authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.
Northwest Environmental Advocates, based in Portland, says a review of 103 discharge permits issued by the Washington Department of Ecology shows a failure to control nitrogen pollution. Excess nitrogen reduces oxygen levels in the water and triggers algae blooms, resulting in serious problems in Puget Sound, according to a petition submitted to the EPA.
“Ecology determined that over 80 percent of the human sources of nitrogen in Puget Sound comes from cities and towns, but it continues to issue discharge permits as if it were completely ignorant of these facts,” Nina Bell, the group’s executive director, said in a news release.
“It’s just flat out illegal to issue permits that contribute to harmful pollution levels,” she added. “These permits are the walking dead, existing merely to create the impression that the state is doing its job to control water pollution when it is not.”
The 113-page petition filed by NWEA describes the problems that nitrogen can cause and the need to implement nitrogen-removal systems, especially in sewage-treatment plants that discharge into Puget Sound. EPA should either require Ecology to take action on nitrogen or remove Ecology’s authority to issue permits under the Clean Water Act, the petition says.
Asked to respond, Heather Bartlett, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program, offered this statement:
“Washington’s water quality permitting program is a role model in the nation. EPA and other states follow our lead when building their programs. We are surprised that Northwest Environmental Advocates has chosen to file this petition rather to appeal the permits they cite.”
In December, the environmental group filed a lawsuit against the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for continuing to fully fund the Department of Ecology at $5 million a year to control polluted runoff under the Clean Water Act and the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments.
“In 1998, the federal agencies told Washington that it was failing to control pollution from farming and logging, dairy operations, urban runoff, on-site septic systems, pesticides . . . you name it,” said Bell in a December news release.
“There is no evidence that at any point in the last 18 years Washington has improved its control of polluted runoff,” she said. “Certainly Puget Sound is as polluted as ever. The passage of time demonstrates that the agencies’ decision to continue unlawful federal funding has not produced results.”
The lawsuit asserts that federal law requires that the EPA and NOAA withhold at least one-third of the federal funds from states that fail to obtain approval for their plans to control nonpoint source runoff, such as stormwater. Since 1998, the state has been on notice that its plan was not acceptable.
NWEA filed a similar lawsuit in Oregon in 2009 and settled out of court a year later, according to Bell. But the state’s proposed pollution plan was disapproved in 2015, and Oregon’s annual funding was subsequently cut by $1.2 million. For documents in the Oregon case, see NWEA’s document library.
The lawsuit challenging Ecology’s actions was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, where legal proceedings are moving forward.