Nearly three decades after first suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its failure to clean up Washington’s polluted waters, environmental groups returned to federal court to enforce the Clean Water Act.
In the groups’ request to reopen a lawsuit initially filed in 1991 and settled in 1998, Northwest Environmental Advocates (NWEA) is asking the Seattle-based federal court to force EPA or the Washington Department of Ecology to develop cleanup plans for rivers, streams, and Puget Sound that have long been identified as having unsafe levels of pollution (amended complaint available here).
“Washington Ecology has not completed a single cleanup plan in nearly four years and at the rate it’s been going, the state will take over 190 years to complete plans for just the waters that are currently identified as over-polluted,” said NWEA Executive Director Nina Bell. “Frankly, the Department of Ecology is unwilling to regulate pollution sources and the EPA is unwilling to step in when the state fails. That is why we turn to the federal courts.”
The Clean Water Act requires states—and EPA if states fail—to develop cleanup plans called total maximum daily loads or “TMDLs” for each water body with unsafe levels of pollution. These science-based cleanup plans impose a “pollution diet” that determines the level of wastewater treatment needed by the sources causing the pollution. Water pollution discharge permits must conform to the restrictions set out in a TMDL.
“Federal courts have been very clear that these water pollution cleanup plans were supposed to have been completed in years— not decades, not generations, and certainly not lifetimes,” said James Saul, staff attorney at the Earthrise Law Center. “The delay is obscene.”
The 1998 settlement between NWEA and EPA obligated the state and federal agencies to complete approximately 1,600 cleanup plans over a 15-year period that ended in mid-2013.
Washington’s list of waters with unsafe pollution levels that still need cleanup plans currently stands at 4,548. The state’s list of over-polluted waters has been growing at a rate three times the pace at which the TMDL cleanup plans are completed.
NWEA is represented in this case by James Saul of the Earthrise Law Center at Lewis & Clark Law School and Andrew Hawley of the Western Environmental Law Center.