Thursday, June 21, 2007

Study Reveals Significant Compliance Problems

If you watched our new documentary, Revenge of the River, then you know that we have been working on an analysis of Clean Water Act permit compliance for the Lower St. Johns River. Well, the study, Lower St. Johns River Compliance Report, is finally complete and the findings are rather troubling.

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, a law that marked a new direction in the management of pollution discharged to our waterways. As authorized by the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program was created to regulate point sources (e.g. a pipe) that discharge pollutants into the waters of the United States. In Florida, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been authorized to administer the NPDES permit program. Thus, DEP has the primary legal authority to implement, oversee, and enforce the permit process.

St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Public Trust Environmental Law Institute of Florida, Inc. initiated the study to analyze the DEP NPDES permit data specific to the St. Johns River. The groups established an 20-month time frame, from January 1, 2005 to August 31, 2006, as the study period.

The purpose of the Lower St. Johns River Compliance Report is to: (1) evaluate the effectiveness of facilities in complying with the limits and conditions of their NPDES permits, and (2) educate the public and provide insight into how DEP oversees the NPDES program and fulfills its responsibility of protecting our waterways. The results clearly indicate that problems exist with the compliance of NPDES permits and the administration and execution of the NPDES program. This analysis serves to document those shortcomings and provide recommendations to address those problems.

Key Findings:

  • The permit review documented 252 violations of NPDES permit limits or conditions and 46 Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) for a total of 298 total violations during the 20-month study period. SSOs totaled almost 266,000 gallons of material, with the majority relating to sewage.
  • Nitrogen-related violations were the most frequent type of violation with 73 incidences. Other Water Quality issues were a close second with 65 occurrences. Bacteria violations numbered 44, and Oxygen related violations totaled 26. There were 21 violations involving heavy metals, followed by 12 violations involving toxic chemicals. There were 11 flow violations. When combined with the 46 SSO violations, flow and SSOs combine to create a substantial problem.
  • JEA’s Julington Creek Water Reclamation Facility (WRF or WWTF) led all facilities in the number of violations with 37. The Julington Creek wastewater treatment facility was followed by Paradise Point WWTF with 27 violations. Hiawatha and Hart Point WWTF each had 22 permit violations.
  • JEA facilities, the majority of which are wastewater treatment facilities, violated their permits a total of 64 times. JEA facilities accounted for over 90% of the SSO violations, 42 of the 46 events.
  • The review noted that DEP designated 27 facilities as “Out-of-Compliance” and documented 36 various “compliance” related incidences. Eighteen facilities were designated as “Significantly-Out-of-Compliance”.
  • A review of the data indicates that some facilities were allowed to operate for long periods of time with an out-of-compliance designation. In some cases, the time period was over a year. For example, the DEP declared East Putman County Road WWTP as “significantly-out-of-compliance” in March 2005. A year later, the facility was again designated as “significantly-out-of-compliance”. The Palatka WWTF was listed as “out-of-compliance” in July of 2005. A return inspection almost a year later, in June 2006, resulted in the plant being declared “significantly-out-of-compliance”.

Currently, the Lower St. Johns River is designated as “impaired” or polluted because of too much nutrient (nitrogen) pollution, and most of the creeks and tributaries in Duval County have high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. In other words, our river and creeks are already polluted. These permit violations are violations of the law--illegally contributing additional pollution to our waterways causing further degradation.

If we are going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to restore the health of the St. Johns, then compliance and enforcement of our environmental laws must be a priority, as well. The facilities that are violating the terms of their permits must do a better job of complying with the law. DEP, the state agency charged with protecting the river, must do a better job of enforcing the laws and encouraging compliance. We deserve better, and so does our river.

For more information, visit our website – You can download the Lower St. Johns River Compliance Report and view the original documents from the DEP files that verify the violations.

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