EHS Administration, Sustainability

EPA Announces Significant Improvements in CWA Permit Compliance

The EPA recently announced major improvements in Clean Water Act (CWA) permit compliance over the last five years.

In 2018, the Agency and 47 states agreed to work collaboratively toward achieving the target goal of reducing significant noncompliance among facilities permitted under the CWA by 50% over five years. The EPA announcement celebrates the achievement of this goal. The national significant noncompliance (SNC) rate has been reduced from 20.3% at the start of 2018 to 9.0% in November 2022.

“Five years ago, EPA set an ambitious goal for cutting the rate of significant noncompliance with Clean Water Act permits in half,” said Larry Starfield, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today I’m pleased to announce that we have met and exceeded that target achieving a historically low rate of 9%. This notable achievement speaks to what EPA and the states can accomplish together to improve compliance and reduce [CWA] violations.”

For many decades, more than 20% of CWA-permitted facilities had SNC-level violations with their water discharge permit, including violations for exceeding permitted pollutant discharge limits, not meeting enforcement order or permit requirements, and not reporting compliance data in a timely manner or sometimes at all.

To alleviate these issues, in 2018, the Agency set a goal to cut the level of SNC violations at roughly 46,000 CWA-regulated facilities in half over five years. To achieve the goal, the EPA invited states to collaborate to find joint solutions. In 2020, the Agency made this effort one of its enforcement program’s National Compliance Initiatives (NCIs).

Reaching this goal results in substantial benefits to public health and the environment, including:

  1. Reducing the number of permitted facilities with SNC-level violations by roughly 4,000 fewer facilities;
  2. Reducing the amount of illegal discharges of water pollution by 23.7 million pounds through enforcement cases concluded over the past three years;
  3. Creating lasting, strong, reliable EPA/state partnerships that can be mobilized to achieve additional successes;
  4. Ensuring the EPA and states have a complete compliance data set to allow quick recognition of and proactive response to CWA noncompliance; and
  5. Increasing attention on the remaining noncompliant facilities and, in turn, increasing the level of compliance across all CWA permittees.

One of the factors in allowing the Agency to achieve this goal was the 2015 CWA National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Electronic Reporting Rule that requires all facilities to electronically report water discharge pollutant monitoring data to the EPA and the states. Before access to this data, the EPA was unable to determine compliance and calculate a reliable rate for SNC for the full 46,000 CWA-permitted facilities. As a result, improving the completeness of the data became a key focus of the initiative to ensure the EPA could accurately determine noncompliance and the SNC rate.

The EPA now has accurate data for determining compliance for CWA facilities for about 96 percent of CWA individually permitted facilities for almost every state in the country. This allows the Agency and states to clearly see which facilities are in violation of their permit and to prioritize these violators for notification, compliance assistance, financial assistance, or enforcement to ensure public health and the environment are protected. Additionally, data improvement increases public transparency, helping communities understand what pollutants are being discharged into local waterways and where violations are occurring.

Moving forward, the Agency states it will focus on ensuring the progress on reduced violations is not lost. It will also turn its attention to addressing the worst CWA violators nationwide.

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