Agropur plans to pump two million gallons of its cheese-plant wastewater into the Big Sioux River. The main health concern from that water is its concentration of nitrates. The Canadian dairy company estimates its wastewater won’t exceed Clean Water Act nitrate limits. We can’t know whether we can allow Agropur to take up a certain share of allowable pollutants in the Big Sioux unless we have an idea of how much pollution is already in the water due to other sources.
Adding up the pollution load on the river shouldn’t be hard: the Department of Environment and Natural Resources could pull the data from its regular review of existing surface water discharge permits, add up the observed loads, and see if there’s room for Agropur’s pollution.
Unfortunately, that “regular review” isn’t happening. Due to a shortage of staff and funds, DENR has allowed 123 cities and companies to keep dumping wastewater into our lakes and streams without any review:
A reevaluation of water discharge permits is required every five years to ensure that state waters are kept clean for wildlife and recreation. However, 123 of those permits have been classified by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources as ‘administratively continued,’ meaning that the facilities filled out the paperwork for a permit to be reissued, but the state deferred taking the necessary action to approve it.
In order to stay in compliance with state law, facilities are required to submit a new permit application 180 days before it expires. If the state doesn’t get the new permit issued before the expiration date, it’s deemed “administratively continued” and the facility continues to operate under the rules of the old one until a reexamination can be issued [Rebekah Tuchscherer, “Dozens of Companies Dump Waste into South Dakota Waters with Outdated Permits,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2018.07.27].
The Governor’s FY2019 recommendation for DENR shows that the agency reduced its backlog of surface water discharge permits from 211 in FY 2016 to 199 in FY2017. DENR planned to have that number down to 190 this July 1 and get it down to 175 by the end of FY2019. At that rate, DENR may actually get eyes on all of its water pollution permits by 2034. The Governor recommended and the Legislature approved 4.4 new FTEs and $1.29 million more for DENR’s environmental services division last year; this year’s budget requested no new staff or funding… and, like DENR on surface water discharge permits, the Legislature appears to have rubber-stamped the Governor’s request with little review.
When we are granting businesses and municipalities permission to pollute our lakes and streams, we have a responsibility to check whether those polluters are following the rules we’ve set for the sake of public health and environmental sustainability. Let’s kick DENR into gear, and let’s change the law so that no pollution happens without a properly reviewed permit application.