The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation's water pollution enforcement actions have declined 75 percent since 2007, according to a new study released this week by the Tennessee Clean Water Network, even as the number of violations have not declined. In addition, the study shows that TDEC's enforcement actions aren't even focused on the parts of the states most likely to have problems: the urban metro centers. In 2012, Knox County only had one enforcement action, and Hamilton County had zero.
"It's really inexplicable," says Renee Hoyos, the executive director of TCWN. "By allowing violators to escape enforcement and to pay so little in fines, it sends the wrong message to polluters."
The report shows that TDEC only assessed less than a million dollars in fines last year, 79 percent of which were "contingent" and thus negotiable. In 2012, only two violators paid more than half of their assessed fines, and over half of the fines paid to TDEC were under $2,000.
"They're cutting off their foot, funding-wise," Hoyos says. Fines help fund TDEC's budget and allow it hire enough staff to enforce water pollution controls across the state. "The public has a right to clean water, and TDEC is supposed to protect that right. But right now you have taxpayers bearing the burden of pollution."
For their part, TDEC says enforcement was down in 2012 because of the statewide drought and a continuing tight economy. Hoyos disputes this, pointing out that there were still thousands of active construction sites across the state. Hoyos also questions whether a policy change at TDEC in 2011 has caused staff to be more wary of creating enforcement actions. TDEC, for its part, says the policy was first issued in 1997 and hasn't changed; Hoyos suspects the perception of the policy among staff members has.
The entire report is worth your time flipping through. It shows that enforcement was under decline in the Bredesen era, so one can't just blame this on an anti-environmental Republican administration under Haslam. But the low numbers--just 53 enforcement actions total in 2012--really are stunning.
"We're calling on the commissioner of TDEC to say they're not stopping enforcement," Hoyos says. Commissioner Bob Martineau has not yet answered the call, but a TDEC spokesperson did say the following: "The goal of the department is to protect the environment and public health. Enforcement is only one tool that we use to achieve that goal. The department's employees do an outstanding job regardless of the many challenges that both man and nature provide."