- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - State regulators issued 77 percent fewer enforcement orders against water polluters in 2014 than they did in 2008, according to the nonprofit Tennessee Clean Water Network.

The network has been tracking actions the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation takes against polluters since 2007, when the agency issued 219 enforcement orders. In 2008, that number rose to 231. But enforcement orders plummeted beginning in 2009, reaching just 53 in 2012; 50 in 2013; and 53 again last year, according to a Tennessee Clean Water Network report released Wednesday.

Four of those 53 orders were issued in direct response to actions by the Clean Water Network, either formal complaints or threatened lawsuits, according to the report.

More than a quarter of enforcement orders in both 2013 and 2014 were not for pollution but for paperwork problems, such as failing to submit a complete permit application, according to the report.

The permits issued by the state agency allow businesses and individuals to pollute Tennessee waterways within certain limits. There are more than 17,000 active water permits statewide. More than half of those are for construction sites.

It is not clear why the number of enforcement orders has been going down. The numbers already were declining when Gov. Bill Haslam took office in 2011, but they dropped steeply in 2012 and have stayed low.

In an emailed statement, spokeswoman Kelly Brockman said the agency works to achieve compliance with the law through various means including “inspections; clear communications; and outreach, where possible and appropriate.”

Brockman said TDEC’s Division of Water Resources completed 2,122 inspections in the second half of 2014 and found an 86 percent compliance rate. In many cases, polluters came back into compliance after receiving a notice of violation. When that doesn’t happen, she said, “we may opt to proceed with more formal enforcement.”

Tennessee Clean Water Network attorney Stephanie Durman said she does not want to speculate on why TDEC is issuing less than a quarter of the enforcement orders that it did seven years ago, but she does not think the drop means there have been fewer violations.

“There’s no evidence to support the proposition that violations declined, certainly not by 75 percent,” Durman said.

The report cites several examples of violations that have been ongoing for years with little or no action from state regulators. In the case of the Holston Army Ammunition Plant, in Kingsport, the Tennessee Clean Water Network has filed a lawsuit asking the courts to order the plant to stop violating its permit, which allows the plant to pollute the Holston River with an explosive chemical compound called RDX.

Since the river is used for drinking water, the amount of RDX allowed in the river is supposed to be within federal limits considered safe.

TDEC first issued a permit for the RDX pollution in 2007. Regulators gave the plant five years to comply with the limits, but in 2012 the plant was releasing more RDX into the river than in 2007.

After the Clean Water Network threatened to sue last year, TDEC entered into an agreement with the plant’s owners and operators that calls for them to use their best efforts to comply with the permit. The network filed a lawsuit in November that is ongoing.

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