Clean Water Victory

Lawsuit Spurs Stricter Toxic Limits, New Water Pollution Permit Affecting Hundreds of Industrial Sites

Less toxic pollution and cleaner water for salmon. That’s the result of a new water-pollution permit that regulates over 800 industrial sites across Oregon. In 2018, Columbia Riverkeeper and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC) reached a legal settlement with the State of Oregon over the state’s one-size-fits-all permit that regulates toxic stormwater pollution. The Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) agreed to take important steps to reduce pollution from industrial facilities such as metal scrap yards, truck depots, and lumber yards. On March 25, 2021, DEQ’s oversight board adopted a revised permit which incorporates important changes spurred by Columbia Riverkeeper and NEDC’s lawsuit. The exciting news: Oregon now has one of the nation’s most protective stormwater permits for industrial sites.

Why do changes to the new industrial stormwater permit-to-pollute matter?

The new permit is an important victory for people that eat locally-caught fish and rely on Oregon rivers for drinking water and recreation. With a new permit, the State of Oregon can keep thousands of pounds of toxic pollution out of rivers—a huge win for people who  jump in the Columbia on a hot day or feed their kids fish.

What’s the problem with industrial stormwater runoff?

Every time it rains, stormwater runs across industrial sites, carrying cancer-causing pollutants and toxic heavy metals into our streams and rivers. According to the National Research Council, urban stormwater runoff is the leading cause of water pollution in the United States. 

Why did Riverkeeper and NEDC sue the State of Oregon?

In August 2017, DEQ rejected Columbia Riverkeeper and NEDC’s calls for critical changes to Oregon’s stormwater  pollution permit. The groups raised concerns about the permit’s weak pollution limits and infrequent pollution reporting requirements. Columbia Riverkeeper and NEDC challenged DEQ’s proposed permit in order to protect rivers, salmon, and public health throughout Oregon. The Earthrise Law Center and the Law Office of Karl G. Anuta, P.C. represented Columbia Riverkeeper and NEDC in the lawsuit.

What did DEQ agree to under the lawsuit settlement?

Under the settlement, DEQ agreed to:

  • Strengthen protections for rivers already overburdened with pollution. DEQ agreed to add special protections for waterbodies that are already too polluted to support salmon, drinking water, and recreation. 
  • Increase corporate accountability by improving pollution reporting. DEQ agreed to require companies to report the amount and type of stormwater pollution they discharge four times per year instead of once. With the change, DEQ and the public can act more swiftly to hold companies accountable and reduce pollution. 
  • Investigate and enact stronger pollution limits, if technically feasible. DEQ agreed to convene an expert committee to investigate whether numeric permit limits for certain toxic stormwater pollutants are feasible. 
What are important changes in Oregon’s new industrial stormwater permit?

The new permit will back ratchet back pollution entering Oregon’s rivers because:

  • For the first time, DEQ included numeric water quality-based effluent limits for dischargers to impaired waters (i.e., waterbodies that do not meet state standards designed to protect public health, salmon, and other species). The result? Less pollution because many industrial sites will need to adopt technology to remove pollution otherwise released from the site or change how they store industrial materials and equipment to reduce pollution runoff.
  • Companies now need to report pollution monitoring results four times a year, enhancing DEQ and the public’s ability to act on a problem-pollution site.
  • DEQ adopted stricter limits, known as numeric effluent limits, for certain toxic pollutants if companies can’t find solutions to reduce toxic pollution. This is a big deal. It will force industries to implement technological fixes or change how they operate to restrict toxic pollution.
About the Clean Water Act:

The objective of the Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972, “is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” The Clean Water Act requires facilities that discharge wastewater into rivers or lakes to have permits limiting pollution. The Clean Water Act also empowers public interest groups, like Columbia Riverkeeper and NEDC, to enforce those permits and protect our collective right to clean, safe rivers. 

Enforce the Law

Thousands of pipes release pollution into the Columbia.