EPA measures marked rise in Clean Water Act permit compliance rates

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cites major performance improvement in among Clean Water Act (CWA) permit holders over the past five-year period. In FY 2018, the agency and 47 states agreed to collaborate on a goal to reduce “significant non-compliance” among facilities permitted under CWA by 50 percent over five years. The effort has met the goal, as the national significant non-compliance rate has been reduced from 20.3 percent at the outset to 9.0 percent at the close of 2022. The marked improvement in CWA compliance will produce substantial benefits for public health and the environment, EPA officials affirm.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

For decades prior to the 2018 initiative, over 20 percent of CWA individually permitted facilities had significant non-compliance level violations with their water discharge metrics, including violations for exceeding pollutant discharge limits; not meeting enforcement order or permit requirements; and, not timely reporting compliance data or sometimes at all. In response to these persistent CWA non-compliance problems, EPA in 2018 set a goal to cut the level of significant non-compliance violations at roughly 46,000 CWA regulated facilities in half by 2022. The agency immediately reached out to the states to partner with them in the effort and to find ways to achieve the goal together. In 2020, officials added the effort to their enforcement program’s National Compliance Initiatives. Achieving a 50 percent cut in the rate of facilities with significant non-compliance (SNC) level CWA violations improves public health and the environment by:

  • Reducing the number of permitted facilities with SNC-level violations by roughly 4,000 fewer
  • facilities;
  • Reducing the amount of illegal discharges of water pollution by 23.7 million pounds through
  • enforcement cases concluded over the past three years;
  • Creating lasting, strong, reliable EPA/state partnerships that can be mobilized to achieve additional successes;
  • Assuring EPA and states have a complete compliance data set to allow quick recognition of and proactive response to CWA non-compliance; and, 
  • Increasing attention on the remaining non-compliant facilities and, in turn, elevating the level of compliance across all CWA permittees.

Underlying increasingly positive compliance metrics is a 2015 CWA rule that requires all facilities to electronically report water discharge pollutant monitoring data to EPA and the states. Prior to this effort, the agency was unable to determine compliance and calculate a reliable significant non-compliance rate for the full 46,000 CWA permitted facilities due to a lack of consistent or accurate data reporting. As a result, improving the completeness of the data became a key focus of the initiative to assure that EPA could accurately determine non-compliance. Access to electronic data on compliance by the universe of regulated parties is not available under most environmental programs.

EPA now has accurate data to determine compliance for about 96 percent of CWA individually permitted facilities for almost every state in the country. The agency and states can clearly see which facilities are in violation of their permit and prioritize violators for notification, compliance or financial assistance, or enforcement.