DEQ in Disgrace

by jhwygirl

Jay’s got a piece up at Left in the West calling on the Governor to show MT DEQ Director Opper the door….and having read the newest story from the Great Falls Tribune on the mistrials of Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, I have to wonder whether anything less would suffice.

The Missoula Independent’s George Ochenski is saying it too: Out with Opper: Disarray, dysfunction plague state’s DEQ “

Let me just say this %&#* pains me. For multiple reasons.

In its latest trials and tribulations, a recently released legislative audit memo of the water protection bureau of the DEQ gives us the gory details:

90 of 172 Montana Discharge Elimination Elimination System permits expired

27 of 70 Montana Ground Water Pollution Control System permits expired

171 of 1,155 general permits for storm water and concentrated animal feed operations expired

Yikes, right?

Both the DEQ and the DNRC have gotten into trouble, recently, for not issuing permits within legislatively mandated timelines. DEQ has been forced, via court order, to issue open pit mining permits despite the lack of adequate review – and it isn’t as simple as blaming it on the courts – and the DNRC was told to issue a community well permit, after it was denied, for a subdivision in Gallatin County.

In that case, Judge Brown wrote in his decision: “The DNRC must act expeditiously, within the time required by law, and failure to do so results in the approval, as a matter of law, of the requested action.”

So much for senior water rights holders, I guess.

DEQ’s woes are troublesome. They are required with the federal Clean Water Act. The department’s 2003 agreement with EPA called for the backlog of permits to be reduced to less than 10% by July 2004. As of September 2007, EPA statistics show that the bureau has only issued 36% of its major permits, 47% of its minor permits, and 31% of its general permits. The legislative memo states “The bureau does not appear to have the processes in place to effectively manage its workload.

It gets worse.

The EPA has raised concerns about the ability of DEQ to protect water quality.

What?!

According to Julie DalSoglio, deputy director of the EPA Region 8 Montana office, the Water Quality Bureau has caused the agency “major concern” for at least five years.

Failure to meet EPA permit backlog reduction goals could result in loss of both federal funding and the state’s delegated authority. In February 2008, the EPA issued a strongly worded letter to the department expressing concern with the department’s commitment to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issuance. The letter stated the department’s permit issuance goals were insufficient to eliminate the permit backlog. The letter also stated the next Performance Partnership Agreement would not be approved without an acceptable plan to resolve permit backlogs, which is to include a multiyear backlog reduction plan with real milestones. It is unknown what effect continued discharges under expired MPDES and MGWPCS permit standards have on the quality of state waters.

I’ll repeat myself here: What is Montana without its rivers and streams?

It can get worse: In a smoke-and-mirrors move, DEQ has reduced its commitment goals to the EPA for the number of permits the agency planned to issue in 2008, in an attempt to create the short-term appearance of success. This is evidenced by a February 20th letter obtained by the Great Fall Tribune’s Capitol Bureau on July 7th. In it EPA assistant regional administrator Stephen Tuber harshly criticized DEQ Director Richard Opper’s agency’s handling of the water quality permitting process. In the letter, Tuber accused the DEQ of reducing the commitment goals for the number of permits the agency planned issue in 2008 in order to create a short-term appearance of success.

Have I said that the Great Falls Tribune rocks? Cause they do. They’re the only paper, it seems covering these issues. Very thoroughly, I might add.

The water protection bureau is divided into two sections – permitting and compliance/technical support. As of February – according to the memo – the permitting staff (a measly 15 people, statewide) was vacant by 3 people (1/5th). The compliance/technical staff – a whopping 10 full-time people, statewide, had 5 assigned to compliance. That leaves 5 technical specialists to support the permitting AND compliance staff.

So not only do they not have enough staff to comply with legislatively mandated deadlines, they don’t seem to be doing anything to deal with the issue. In a May 12th meeting before the legislative Environmental Quality Council, both staff and Director Opper were asked about staffing and whether there were any steps being taken to request additional staffing and funding for the next legislative session.

The staffer stammered a non-answer and referred it to Opper, who stumbled out a statement saying that they were in a “belt-tightening session” and “working closely with the governor’s staff” on the upcoming budget.

Listen to the minutes of that meeting. There’s some eye-opening statements in there on some of our Republican legislature’s view of the role of environmental regulation. Senator Jim Shockley (R-Victor) is downright gleeful over gravel permits being issued without review.

All of this raises some serious concerns over staffing levels for some of the most important departments which regulate some of the most basic elements of Montana’s citizen’s needs: water and water quality.

We have department directors and bureau chiefs who apparently won’t (or can’t) do their job – inadequate staffing and budget quite apparently some of the greatest instigators – and an executive office which is pushing them towards “belt-tightening” when courts are shredding our Title IX Montana Constitutional rights and our Title 75 Montana Code Annotated laws.

We need leadership, not smoke-and-mirrors and dancing around the elephant that is stomping on our water rights and water qualities.

Take notice, Governor Schweitzer. Stand up, show us that Brand New Day you promised us 4 years ago.

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  1. goof houlihan

    There it is.

  1. 1 Because I Can Only Fit So Much Into One Post: DEQ Redux « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] you missed my last post on DEQ, DEQ in Disgrace, you need to go back and read it. Like the title above says, there is only so much I can fit into […]

  2. 2 MT Dept. of Agriculture Water Testing Finds Bad Stuff « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Water quality isn’t something we should be screwing around with or delaying or assuming is fine. Do remember, too, that in a recent audit, the EPA is questioning MT DEQ’s ability to protect water quality. […]




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