Who has a permit to pollute in Prince William?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains a Permit Compliance System database of the specific locations (“point sources”) where permits have been issued for polluting the creeks and rivers in Prince William.

Currently, 23 sites in Prince William County have National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits in the EPA database.  There are details for each point source, such as the permit for the H. L. Mooney Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Making such details available is a model that Prince William should follow for its stormwater pollution controls.

The detailed documents may be hard to interpret unless you’re in the pollution management business -the technical jargon reflects the expectation that these permits are designed for the experts, not the average citizen.  However, getting access to the basic data is an essential part of transparent government, allowing county residents (especially neighbors near a permitted facility) to get a start in understanding how we currently control pollution in Prince William.

The Clean Water Act will require tighter controls on pollution produced in Prince William.   EPA is getting serious, finally, about saving the Chesapeake Bay.  The state will identify the pollution budget for each jurisdiction before the November, 2011 election for the next Board of County Supervisors.  County officials will face tough choices on how to accommodate population growth (and keep the developers happy), while cutting back on the current total pollution levels pouring from Prince William into the Potomac River.

The costs to taxpayers for reducing stormwater runoff from existing development will be high – and will get even higher unless local elected/appointed officials overcome resistance from developers who expect “business as usual” approvals of site plans for new development that generates new pollution.

An easy place to start, if local officials want public support for their actions, would be to increase the transparency of local government approvals.  Some stormwater ponds are managed by the county, but some are not – wouldn’t it be nice to know where the county has an obligation to maintain stormwater facilities?

The EPA database has little information for the county’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit for storm water discharges and infrastructure.  Posting online the database of those ponds, with maps showing the location of each facility and reports on status of inspection/maintenance actions, could increase public understanding of the scope of the challenge.

Future requests to create new stormwater pollution will receive greater scrutiny.  There’s no technical difficulty in posting the details of requested rezonings and site plans, so county residents could see what’s proposed initially.  The Planning Department already produces the Development Application Processing Schedule (DAPS) – but staff waits until the end of the back-room negotiations, before linking to the staff report with details of the proposed actions.

If Prince William officials would improve the transparency of the local government decision process, they could reshape the public’s understanding of the land use game and potentially generate public support for the controversial and expensive decisions that lie ahead.

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