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DENR Automatically Renewing Many Water Pollution Permits Without Checking Compliance

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until a reexamination can be issued [Rebekah Tuchscherer, “Dozens of Companies Dump Waste into South Dakota Waters with Outdated Permits,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2018.07.27].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.


  1. jerry 2018-07-29 09:09

    The Big Sewage River “SIOUX FALLS — The Big Sioux River snakes 420 miles down eastern South Dakota.

    From its headwaters in Roberts County, it gradually drops 800 feet as it cuts through the Coteau des Prairies flatiron and meanders into Iowa and flows into the Missouri River.

    Some of the state’s largest cities were built along its banks — Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown — as people and industry flocked to the wide-open prairie. Farms, feedlots, cities, industry all thrive, each dumping the fruits of their progress into the river.”

    Dirtiest river in the nation says a lot about how we stopped giving a damn about our state. We show that each day and prove it with the Keystone’s. We could do something about it, but that would require legislators who are now to busy checking out their belly buttons to do anything but scheme on ways to line their designer mom jeans.

  2. Elizabeth 2018-07-29 14:14

    Assuming the facts are correct in this story then this informTion should be forwarded to EPA who can cite the state for violating the Clean Water Act. The EPA has the authority to take over from the state if they can’t do their job. If polluted waters are harming a species protected by the Endangered Species Act contact the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Pierre. It would appear that waters with the Topeka shiner may be impacted by some of these violations.

  3. Tony 2018-07-29 15:03

    I think it’s time we have a moratorium on pollution discharge permits… until we figure out “just what in the hell is going on!” Seriously though, the situation is not going to get any better without some drastic measures.

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-07-29 21:04

    Picking up Tony’s cue, we should also build a wall around polluters and make them pay for it.

  5. Donald Pay 2018-07-29 21:25

    Elizabeth is on the right track. These programs are delegated by EPA to the states to permit and enforce. The state gets money from the EPA in order to carry out these programs. If they can’t do the job, they are receiving federal funds under false pretenses. Essentially, they are cheating us taxpayers, and scamming the federal government, as well as failing to protect public health and the environment.

    There is, of course, the question of whether the current EPA would actually crack down of the state’s lax permitting and enforcement efforts. Based on my past experience watchdogging the agency in the 1980s and 1990s, I assume that the EPA has more or less forced the state to put some money into more staff for enforcement, which accounts for the additional FTEs for inspection and enforcement. This could also just be more federal money passed through to the state. The state does the absolute minimum required of it, and it would be a shock if this was actual state-only effort. There are good people at DENR, but the people running the agency don’t have enforcement as a priority. TIP was continually having to point stuff out. Sometimes they would ignore us. Sometimes they would follow up.

    There is an option to sue under citizen suit provisions. Generally that is done to get permitting on certain operations, but I wonder if it can be used to get inspections, enforcement and permitting that isn’t just a sham.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-07-29 21:43

    Donald, I suspect we can’t count on the feds for anything this year. We’ll have to light our own fire under the DENR and hang on for re-establishment of law and order in 2021.

  7. Donald Pay 2018-07-29 22:02

    I don’t know any of the EPA Regional people anymore, but we used to be able to find out information about what the state was or was not doing right through a few of those people. EPA does have to approve MOUs with the state for these programs. These come up about every 4-5 years. We would try to be involved in commenting on those MOUs, and we got some improvements this way.

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