Enforcement of TN water pollution rules declining?

An environmental group is questioning why the Haslam administration’s water quality enforcement against polluters appears to be disappearing down a drain, reports the Times-Free Press.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network said its study shows water quality enforcement orders by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation against water polluters dropped from 219 in 2007 to just 15 during 2015.

That’s a 93 percent drop the group warned. And it impacts protection of state waterways “that are the source of drinking water for millions of Tennesseans.”

…TDEC Commissioner Bob Martineau said the environmental group is looking solely at penalties collected as enforcement action.

“There’s an array of what we take as enforcement actions, from the reading of the report they send in with what your discharge levels, to inspections, to all the way up to what we call formal enforcement actions that are orders or civil judicial actions,” he said. “Those are all tools in the tool box.

“If we do an inspection and identify a problem and within a few days the source comes back into compliance, that’s our goal, it’s compliance,” the commissioner said. “Enforcement actions usually mean that somebody hasn’t, after reasonable efforts to try to comply, they just haven’t gotten their facilities corrected, then we take a more formal action with what they call enforcement action.”

Asked if critics might call that regulation light, Martineau said, “Again, it’s a matter of perspective. We get a lot of people telling us that every time we issue a penalty we’re over-enforcing and we’re putting people out of business. Our goal is compliance.”

He said the state’s compliance rates “are extremely high, higher than they’ve ever been.”

News release from Tennessee Clean Water Network
Knoxville, Tennessee – A Tennessee Clean Water Network study released today shows that water quality enforcement orders issued by Tennessee Department of Conservation and Environment’s Division of Water Resources (DWR) have dropped by more than 90 percent since 2007.

The study found that in 2015, there were only 15 enforcement orders issued by TDEC’s DWR across the state. This compares with the 219 enforcement orders issued in 2007…a dramatic 93 percent reduction in actions necessary to protect the waterways that are the source of drinking water for millions of Tennesseans.

“The question is why?” said TCWN Executive Director Renee Hoyos. “According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, there are 255 permittees in Tennessee in violation of their permits. And out of that number, TDEC only issued 15 enforcement orders to clean up the rivers and lakes. That is unacceptable!”

“We have seen drinking water crisis all over the county in recent years. Many of these have resulted from lack of oversight from the state. God forbid something like that should happen here in Tennessee. When the state is managing the regulated community diligently, drinking water mishaps are less likely to happen,” Hoyos said.

Hoyos noted that TCWN reports from the last eight years have shown a steady decline in enforcement actions. “Enforcement orders are an essential tool to hold permittees accountable for their actions. TDEC has said in the past that staffing limitations have contributed to the lack of enforcement actions, but the law requires TDEC to take enforcement action and not hide behind excuses.”

“These low enforcement numbers invite industry to come to Tennessee and pollute because nothing will be done about it. This is not fair to Tennesseans who rely on our rivers and streams for drinking water. And, from our research, there is not a shortage of enforcement action requests from TDEC employees and citizens, just a low response rate to those requests.” Hoyos said.

The study also found enforcement actions in other TDEC divisions – Air Pollution, Solid Waste and Underground Storage Tanks – are down significantly as well, but not down as drastically as is the case in the DWR.

TCWN normally issues a study every two years on TDEC’s DWR enforcement activities with the last report covering the 2007-2014 time period. But the unfortunate continued decline of enforcement prompted TCWN to look at the data for 2015 to see if the downward trend was continuing, which it clearly was.

“Enforcement of clean water laws is important regulatory work that must be done by the state to protect Tennesseans. Protecting water quality is a key element in improving our environment and helping to have healthier communities throughout our state,” Hoyos added.