Republican candidates for governor are complaining that state environmental regulators are impeding business development, but conservationists said Wednesday their new report shows enforcement is weak and uneven.
The Tennessee Clean Water Network released the first in a series of reports  on the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) water protection programs. Using data from 2008 enforcement actions, the first report found 65 percent of fines were less than $2,000, and there were no enforcement actions in more than a third of Tennessee’s counties.
“We think that it is important for the public to understand how water protection works in the state, or rather, how it doesn’t work,” said Renée Victoria Hoyos, director of the Clean Water Network . “The public has an expectation that the state is doing its job to protect the quality of our drinking water as well as protecting our beautiful rivers and streams. This report shows that TDEC is not protecting this resource very well.”
Hoyos said the 20-page report dispels the myths created by lobbyists for polluting industries at the state legislature that TDEC’s regulation hurts economic development.
In the Republican governor’s race, Senate speaker Ron Ramsey and Congressman Zach Wamp frequently criticize state environmental regulations.
Ramsey has said, "TDEC is out of control. At one time they would regulate what was supposed to be regulated, but they've crossed their bounds."
Wamp has said of TDEC, "They need an overhaul. They need somebody at the very top that understands the business, and local government, and what it means to move things forward."
But conservationists said their report shows fines and penalties are not enough to deter pollution. TDEC is not targeting farms or mines, nor does the agency have a plan for eliminating the two major pollutants in Tennessee: mud and e.coli, according to the report.
Only 2 percent of enforcement actions were against the farming community but not for farming activities. They were for development activities on farm land and an industrial farm operating without a permit, the report said.
In addition, 62 percent of enforcement actions were taken for minor permit violations not associated with pollution events.
“With the average fine of $2,000, we do not believe economic development is being curbed or that polluters think twice before polluting. We think this amount is rolled into the cost of doing business and that our drinking water resources are being degraded,” Hoyos said. “Enforcement with stiff fines and penalties is the single most powerful tool at TDEC’s disposal to control pollution. Sadly, when TDEC does not step in, Tennesseans pay to clean up the mess many times over through taxes, repairing damage to their private property, increased drinking water and sewage rates, increased flood insurance, and legal fees if it comes to a lawsuit.”
TDEC spokeswoman Tisha Calabrese said the report “contains some correct information and some unsubstantiated conclusions based on a very small snapshot of what the department does to protect and improve water quality.”
TDEC has limited regulatory authority over agricultural operations because most of those are exempt from environmental regulation, she pointed out.
As for the uneven geographical nature of enforcement actions, she said, “[T]he department issues enforcement orders where they are needed to compel compliance with environmental laws, and we generally see more orders in the counties that have more permitted facilities.”