Backlogged Pollution Permits Threaten Montana Waterways

Oct 5, 2018

A backlog in the review of water pollution permits within Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality is leading to an increased risk to public health and aquatic life. That’s according to an audit of the state’s pollution control program given to state lawmakers Friday.

Businesses need a permit if they plan on pumping or dumping pollutants into Montana waterways.

Permit holders for these pollutant discharges into surface and groundwater are located all over the state.

The audit published today says that while there are periodic reviews of those permits by Montana DEQ, at times review and permit renewals are not done in a timely manner.

Auditor Sarah Carlson says polluters are allowed continue using their expired permit to pollute while they wait for DEQ to approval a renewal, and this can go on for years.

“There’s been a history of issues with timeliness in this permitting program,” Carlson says.

The audit found that 30 percent of surface and groundwater pollutant discharge permits are expired but allowed to continue while the permit renewal was under review. Most of those continued working under their expired permits for no longer than two years before DEQ approved a renewal. But the audit found several instances in the last decade of five-year water pollution permits that were allowed to continue for more than 10 years after expiring before the permit was updated.

This is legal, but concerning if the continuation is lengthy, the audit says, because “timely review and issuance of updated permits is essential to water quality because it gets new requirements in place for facilities as soon as possible.”

In one example, the audit points out that this delay in permit renewal for an oil refinery allowed a facility to continue discharging arsenic at nearly double approved levels, during the lapse in their permit arsenic pollution standards were tightened.

The audit says when Montana’s Water Protection Bureau was asked how this backlog in permits happened, current management at the bureau was unable to comment because they all had been hired in the past 3-5 years.

However, the audit says DEQ staff added that in addition to the backlog, lack of staff and staff turnover were the main cause for the situation.

DEQ agreed with the audit recommendation that it needs to create and enforce deadlines for reviewing and issuing these kinds of permits.

DEQ says that plan will be in place by the end of the year.