Thousands of permits designed to protect Colorado streams are expired

Thousands of permits designed to protect Colorado streams are expired

Thousands of permits designed to protect Colorado streams are expired

This Fresh Water News story is a collaboration between The Colorado Sun and Water Education Colorado. It also appears at wateredco.org/fresh-water-news.

Colorado’s health department is years behind in processing special Clean Water Act permits critical to protecting water quality in the state’s streams and rivers.

Right now, just 33% of the active discharge permits on file with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Division, are current, far below the agency’s 75% goal, according to the agency. 

Under the federal Clean Water Act, entities that discharge fluids into streams, including wastewater treatment plants and factories, must get approval from water quality regulators to ensure what they’re putting into the waterways does not harm them.

But it is a tough job, as pressure on streams rises due to the warming climate, populations grow, and new toxins, such as PFAS, emerge. PFAS make up a large class of chemicals used in everything from firefighting foam to Teflon. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they last decades in the environment and the human body. The EPA has just begun setting regulatory standards for them.

“Colorado could be doing better and it should be doing better,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney and director of clean water at the Boston-based Environment America.

Lagging EPA standards are part of the problem

Permitting backlogs exist across the country, due in part to the EPA’s failure to update the standards the states work to enforce, he said.

“We’re tolerating more pollution in our waterways than the law should abide,” Rumpler said. “Old threats we have succeeded in reducing, but new ones emerge. Now we have PFAS in our waterways, urban runoff and new chemicals. We’re just not keeping up.”

In an email, EPA officials said they’re aware of the issue. “EPA currently is in the process of evaluating permitting data for all states, including backlogs, and will be posting that information on our website by the end of January,” said Rich Mylott, a spokesman for EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver.

Of the more than 10,129 active discharge permits in Colorado, 67% have been continued without a formal review. The state’s Water Quality Control Division has wrestled with the problem for several years as staffing shortages and budget shortfalls grip the agency.

Though holders of expired permits are legally allowed to discharge under the Clean Water Act, the special status means dischargers face major uncertainty about what future requirements may be and how much it will cost to meet them, said Nicole Rowan, director of the state’s Water Quality Control Division.

“What is challenging is when permits are backlogged and older, they aren’t current with environmental regulations,” Rowan said.

“And if a facility wants to expand or change something, we can’t do it because it is in that administrative state,” she said.

The north complex of the Robert W. Hite Treatment Facility is seen Dec. 12, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Those facilities operating with expired permits include Metro Water Recovery in Denver, which processes wastewater for millions of metro area residents. It is Colorado’s largest wastewater treatment plant. The agency declined an interview request, but in a statement said that resolving the backlog would help everyone.

“Like many public agencies, Metro understands that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is resource constrained. … Metro believes that it is in the best interest of all parties for permits to be renewed within a five-year cycle so that they are consistent with the current regulatory framework.”

The city of Aurora is also among those agencies operating with a expired permit, according to spokesman Greg Baker. Aurora’s permit expired in 2017. Baker declined to comment on the impact of the delay.

In response to the problem, state lawmakers agreed earlier this year to add $2.4 million temporarily to the division’s budget. 

“What the General Assembly did was a really big step in providing us some stability,” Rowan said.

But funding lasts only until June 2025, at which point the agency must present a formal plan to lawmakers for keeping the permitting system current and adequately funded.

Rowan and others are hopeful the revamp of the system will dramatically improve the state’s ability to monitor and protect water quality. Anyone interested in participating and tracking the state’s process can do so by signing up here. The next meeting is Dec. 18.

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