A Tennessee watchdog group has analyzed the state's water pollution enforcement records and says the state underutilizes enforcement tools and has too few regulators.
"While stream after stream goes on the (state's) list of impaired streams, we see little to no accountability for violators," said Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, based in Knoxville.
The network's 15-page report concludes that in Tennessee "it is cheaper to ask for forgiveness than permission."
According to the group's look at enforcement actions reported in 2008 by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, state regulators brought 231 water pollution enforcement actions at 204 sites statewide.
On average, Ms. Hoyos said, that's about two actions per county in a whole year.
What's more, she said, the fines usually are forgiven, and the state in 2008 collected only $733,398 of the $3.1 million assessed.
"When TDEC doesn't step up, the public has to pay, first in taxes to support TDEC, and then in paying more to clean up our water," Ms. Hoyos said. "It creates a burden on the public that really shouldn't be there."
Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, called the report "a very small snapshot of what the department does to protect and improve water quality."
She said that, in 2008, regulators also issued more than 1,100 notices of violation -- the equivalent of warning tickets.
"Our goal is always to prevent problems to begin with. ... If (notice of violation) recipients respond to fix the issue, enforcement orders are often not necessary," she said.
She said state regulators in 2008 also performed more than 4,400 inspections and "communicated 851 minor deficiencies" that did not rise to the level of a violation.
Those efforts, along with proactive programs such as small business assistance, training programs and pollution prevention partnerships, "have a direct, positive impact on water quality in Tennessee," she said.
As for TDEC not having enough inspectors, Ms. Calabrese-Benton cited the difficult economic times.
"The department is committed to efficiently and effectively managing the resources we have," she said.
Ms. Hoyos said the report is an effort to educate the public so citizens will talk to their legislators, who often hear only from lobbyists representing interest groups that want state water laws weakened.
"We think the public should get behind TDEC and demand enforcement that curbs water pollution," she said.
In 2008, 58 of the state's 95 counties were the sites of 231* water pollution control enforcement actions. In the 12 Chattanooga-area counties, 18 enforcement orders were recorded.
* Bledsoe -- 1
* Bradley -- 4
* Franklin -- 3
* Grundy -- 0
* Hamilton -- 4
* Marion -- 0
* McMinn -- 2
* Meigs -- 2
* Polk -- 1
* Rhea -- 0
* Roane -- 1
* Sequatchie -- 0
* 21 were issued against two or more responsible parties
Source: Tennessee Clean Water Network, TDEC