Yesterday, a coalition of environmental groups released a report advocating for stricter federal controls on water pollution from power plants. Of the information contained in that report, one thing jumped out: the allegation that 17 of Kentucky’s 20 coal-fired power plants are currently operating under expired water pollution permits.
First: a clarification. Just because the permits have technically expired doesn’t mean that these power plants are operating without a permit. The technical term is that the permits are “administratively continued.” That means the power plants keep operating under the old permit until they get a new one.
But the data is interesting. The permits of the 17 power plants in question expired, on average, more than six years ago. The oldest—for East Kentucky Power’s H L Spurlock plant in Mason County—expired in April, 2004. That power plant has spent more than nine years waiting for the renewal of a five year permit. Both of Louisville Gas & Electric’s Louisville power plants have been waiting for nearly six years. I asked Jory Becker of the Kentucky Division of Water whether that’s normal.
“No,” he said.
Becker manages surface water permitting for the state. These National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System—or NPDES—permits are supposed to be valid for five years. Six months before the official expiration date, companies submit an application for renewal. The Clean Water Act gives the state the next 180 days to review the application, request more information if necessary, and issue (or deny) the renewal.
But Becker said of the 900 permitting actions pending with the Division of Water, 540 of them have exceeded that 180-day timeframe. That’s sixty percent.
Becker said the backlog is mainly a function of attrition, and staff turnover. He said there’s a difference between compliance and permitting, so even while a power plant is operating under an “administratively continued” permit, they’re still doing quarterly water monitoring, and submitting the results to the state. If the company found to be out of compliance with the permit, it’s held accountable. But the value of the five-year permit is that it provides a timeframe for regulators to re-examine how a plant is operating.
“It’s like a snapshot in time,” Becker said. “Every five years the permitting engineer should look at that snapshot of the last five years and make determinations if there’s changes or anything to the standards, or problems or things in the data or in the development of the science have changed, so that we can appropriately permit the facility for the next five years.”
So what does it mean for Kentucky’s water quality when a permit that’s supposed to be reviewed every five years goes longer without examination?
“Well what it means for Kentucky’s environment is that you are allowing discharges into waterways for which we have no assurance that the permits are properly controlling all the pollutants or controlling sufficiently to protect the streams,” Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council said.
He called the numbers troubling.
“There’s a reason why we periodically reopen these permits and why you have to come in for renewal every five years, and that’s because the standards may change and the conditions into which you discharge may change,” he said.
FitzGerald says this backlog is a direct consequence of a lack of resources, and doesn’t hold up the promises the state made when it took over the permitting program from the federal government.