Strong pollution permits are key tools for protecting our clean water.
One of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper’s primary activities is the review and scrutiny of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits issued by the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ), to ensure that we are both protecting our best quality waters and reducing pollution to other, heavily used waters.
DEQ writes permits that set precise limits on pollutant discharges to state waters. Permits have a lifespan of five years, when they are to be reviewed and discharge limits are to be reduced, with the eventual goal of zero pollution.
Individual v. General Permits
“Individual” permits are custom permits written specifically for and regulating a single facility. Most individual permits are for large-scale or unique industrial facilities and municipal sewage treatment plants. Individual permits are issued when a general permit is not available or would be inappropriate for a given facility based on the nature and magnitude of their operations. Montana, and the Upper Missouri River Basin, have few Individual Permits but, for those in existence, ensuring compliance is a key “bang-for-the-buck” method of protecting water quality.
“General” permits regulate a class of industries or activities, such as discharges from construction or like smaller operations. This means that many different facilities are regulated by the same permit terms and conditions. The vast majority of facilities in Montana regulated by NPDES permits are regulated by “general” permits.
Point-Source v. Non-Point Source
“Point source” pollution is a discharge that occurs at a specific location. A “point-source” is any discernible, confined, and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to, any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, and container from which pollutants are or may be discharged to surface water of the State. “Point source” pollution is regulated by the federal Clean Water Act. Dischargers of “point sources” are generally required to get NPDES permit coverage. Due to the nature of the regulatory landscape, Waterkeeper’s Clean Water Act lawsuits and permit appeals focus on “point source” pollution.
“Point source” pollution should be distinguished from “nonpoint source” pollution.
“Nonpoint source” pollution is any source of water pollution which does not meet the definition of point source provided above. “Nonpoint source” pollution generally results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage or hydrologic modification. “Nonpoint source” pollution is not regulated by the federal Clean Water Act. Regulation of non-point source pollution, which includes agricultural runoff, depends largely on state level authority held by the Montana DEQ and local counties. Sadly, nonpoint source pollution is the largest threat to water quality in Montana and fixing the problem of non point source pollution means developing new ways of doing business at the state and local levels.