Tallahassee — Florida’s major wastewater dischargers remain in violation of their Clean Water Act permits for years with little or no enforcement action, according to an analysis of federal data by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, the most basic quality safeguards for Florida’s fresh and marine receiving waters are seriously compromised.
PEER analyzed the Quarterly Noncompliance Reports from 1999 through 2013 for all major wastewater dischargers (more than a million gallons per day) submitted by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and found:
- As many as 46 facilities have been in noncompliance for more than 7 years with some for more than a decade. While many of these chronic violators are municipal sewage treatment plants, others are corporate operations of DuPont, Georgia-Pacific, Tropicana and Coronet Industries;
- Despite a requirement that there must be prompt enforcement action against facilities on the noncompliance lists, 113 facilities have been listed at least 11 times in the past 14 years for effluent violations without any record of an enforcement action taken. Besides municipalities this list includes nuclear power plants, phosphate mines, fertilizer and chemical factories; and
- Enforcement actions are taken in less than half (49%) of instances in which violations are reported; however even those numbers are inflated, with the same enforcement action reported multiple times. Moreover, many of the enforcement actions are slaps on the wrists consisting of an agreement to resume or increase reporting of discharges with no payment of any penalties.
“Looking at this data, people can stop wondering why our waters are increasingly afflicted by toxic algal blooms,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney who tallied the figures, noting that many of the worst offenders are municipal sewage treatment plants. “Because permit conditions are not enforced Florida’s waters are being steadily transformed into an open sewer.”
This is a joint federal-state regulatory breakdown, as EPA is supposed to ensure that the DEP takes timely enforcement action against 95% of the facilities in “Significant Noncompliance.” If the state does not act, EPA has the authority to intervene and take enforcement itself. The official records reveal, however, that neither the state nor federal agency comes anywhere close to meeting these legal obligations.
Perhaps even more disturbingly, this permit system is built upon prompt and accurate discharge self-reporting by the facilities themselves. Yet, more than half (58%) of all violations consist of reporting violations with more than a quarter (29%) consisting of effluent violations in excess of permit limits.
“Without accurate discharge reports we have no idea what and how many chemicals are being pumped into our waters,” added Phillips, noting that Florida DEP does not even regard failure to submit reports as noncompliance, categorizing them as only technical “paperwork” violations. “EPA should be posting these Quarterly Noncompliance Reports on the web for everyone to see.”