A Short Guide to NPDES Permits and the Cannabis Industry

Written By: Doug Ruhlin | Apr 6, 2023

Time to Read 9 Minutes

Unpacking NPDES Permits: Why Your Cannabis Facility May Need One

A Quick Guide to NPDES Permits for Cannabis, Hemp, CBD, and Similar Growing or Processing Operations

Today, we’re talking about something that might not be at the top of your mind when you think of the cannabis industry in - NPDES permits. But trust us, this is important stuff to know about if you’re running a cannabis facility anywhere in the United States.

Simple problem is, when it comes to setting up a shop for growing or processing cannabis, hemp, or CBD, getting into compliance with a “stormwater permit” or handling process water isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. We get it and get a fair number of folks asking us about this very topic, so let’s discuss it.


What is an NPDES permit & how does it apply to the cannabis industry?

So, what exactly is an NPDES permit, and why do cannabis facilities need one? NPDES stands for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, and it’s a permit that’s required under the Clean Water Act. Essentially, it helps regulate the discharge of pollutants into the nation’s surface waters, like rivers, lakes, and streams. Some states even take it a step further and regulate the discharge of pollutants into groundwater, such as an aquifer. These are often called stormwater permits, too, since most people can use a general NPDES in their respective state which usually only will cover stormwater-related discharges from your property, not the water you use in your “processes”. More on this is below.

Now, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m not dumping anything into any waterways, why do I need a permit?” It’s a great question and one that takes some explaining.

NPDES Permits for Cannabis Facilities

NPDES Permits are State Specific – Just like cannabis regulations!

Not all NPDES permits are the same. In fact, the NPDES permits here in New Jersey where I’m writing this from are called NJPDES Permits, there are a few industry-specific versions of these permits, and they only cover stormwater discharges. In New Jersey if you’re in the cannabis industry, unfortunately, there’s no industry-specific permit for you, so you’ll need what’s called an Individual NJPDES Permit for your operation.

Conversely, in New York, you may need a SPDES permit. In Pennsylvania, you might need the PAG-03 Permit. In Virginia, it’s a VPDES Permit, while in South Carolina it’s just a South Carolina NPDES Permit. Catching on? All states treat these permits uniquely, on a state-specific basis, so what works in one state doesn’t work in another state, just like cannabis industry regulations.

NPDES permits normally regulate things like stormwater runoff, which can carry pollutants from your cannabis facility into nearby waterways (by entering rivers, lakes, streams, or just entering a stormwater catch basin).

And with the rise of the cannabis industry (particularly in highly regulated states like New Jersey where marijuana and hemp cultivation is becoming more widespread), it’s more important than ever to make sure that the industry is operating in an environmentally responsible way, meaning coverage under an NPDES permit (if required), and staying in compliance with it.

Wait – are cannabis operations required to get an NPDES permit?

The short answer is it depends. It depends on what your facility looks like, how you operate, where you operate, etc. In some locations no NPDES permit may be required (this is predominately based on your NAICS code), while in other locations you may need an NPDES permit, or could even get away with a non-exposure certification (more or less saying your operation doesn’t expose any pollutants to stormwater, so no permit needed.

Confusing, right? Again, since things vary on a state-to-state basis, there is no cut-and-dry answer. And, since your NAICS code can impact your regulatory requirements, and since states can sometimes “require” non-regulated entities to obtain an NPDES permit, the answer is hard to pin down without discussing some variables specific to you and your operation.

It’s like asking what’s the best pool to buy, or how much a used car costs. Depending on what you need, the answer to these questions varies greatly.

Basic Concepts of NPDES Permits for the Cannabis Industry

So, what does this mean for cannabis facilities? Essentially, if you’re running a cannabis cultivation or processing facility, you might need an NPDES permit. This will depend on a number of factors, including the size of your operation, the specific activities you’re engaged in, how you operate, the location of your facility, etc. But the bottom line is, if your cannabis facility has the potential to discharge pollutants into a nearby water source, you should be looking into whether or not you need an NPDES permit.

For many, this is a heavy ask. It’s like figuring out what your taxes are without an accountant (something I can’t do)! For many types of operations out there, their best bet is to get help in the form of an environmental consultant (such as ourselves). Self-serving, yes, but it’s like asking an accountant “do you think I can figure out all this tax stuff by myself?” Sometimes yes, sometimes now, regardless, you can’t afford to screw things up since it can cost you real time and money.

The basics however are this:

  • NPDES Permits can be required at a variety of industrial operations (of which different types of cannabis cultivation and production facilities fall under). These types of operations may need an individual permit, a general permit (if available and applicable), or can sometimes get a “no exposure” certificate. The specifics of your operation impact NPDES permitting applicability. I cannot say “everyone needs one” – conversely, I can’t say “no one needs one”. It all depends.
  • NPDES permits are state specific (like cannabis regulations), and their enforcement can vary with each respective state. Some states have easy permits, others have challenging permits.
  • NPDES permits are administered (normally) by the state’s environmental department. Conversely many regions, counties, and cities/municipalities may have “stormwater” regulations, but these are not “local” NPDES permits or anything like that.
  • Most NPDES permits are concerned with stormwater runoff from your facility. If you need to discharge process water (waste water, or whatever else you may call it), chances are you’ll need an individual NPDES, which can be much more difficult to obtain. If you discharge into a sanitary sewer system, that’s something different.
  • NPDES permits have been around (in one way, shape, or form) for decades – they’re usually very well enforced, with fairly regimented regulations to deal with.
  • In order to obtain an NPDES permit you may need outside help (consultants, surveying, engineering, etc.). The process is fairly technical, and for some, best left to the professionals.
  • It could take anywhere from a few weeks to well over a year to get an NPDES permit, again depending on location and the permit. Plan ahead, since your permit can occasionally hold up other aspects of your operation in terms of permitting and approvals.
  • And last but not least - cost! An NPDES permit could cost virtually nothing (figure a few hundred dollars if you can get a non-exposure certification), to tens of thousands or more (if your operation has complex stormwater and/or process water discharge issues), but most cannabis facilities could reasonably expect to spend something in the $3,000 to $8,000 range to get an NPDES permit through outside help like a consultant. Annual costs after that could again be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand, depending on the details of your NPDES permit. You can get more details in How much does an NPDES stormwater permit cost?

All make sense? Long-winded way of saying your cannabis facility may need an NPDES permit, but it all depends. When in doubt, find out. Ask an expert or make an anonymous call to the state, you don’t want to find out the hard way (costing you time and money).

Cannabis Facility NPDES Permit Compliance

Common NPDES Pollutants in the Cannabis Industry

Now, you might be wondering what kind of pollutants we’re talking about here. When it comes to the cannabis industry, some of the biggest concerns are nutrients and chemicals used in the cultivation process, like fertilizers and pesticides. These substances can have a major impact on the health of nearby waterways if they’re not properly managed. That’s why it’s so important to have an NPDES permit in place, to make sure that you’re operating in an environmentally responsible way and minimizing the risk of harm to nearby waterways.

We’re operating in a “green” industry, so our performance should be as “green” as possible, right?

If my cannabis facility doesn’t have an NPDES permit, then what?

So, what happens if you don’t have an NPDES permit and you’re discharging pollutants from your cannabis facility into a water source? Even if it’s just runoff from some paved parking areas where you occasionally unload trucks, park vehicles, or store some equipment/chemicals outside?

The consequences can be serious. You could face fines, legal action, or even criminal charges. And even if you’re not facing any legal consequences, the damage to the environment can be long-lasting and costly to repair. If you were to accidentally release hundreds of pounds of a chemical into a waterbody because it was stored improperly and you didn’t have an NPDES permit… I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes! That’s why it’s so important to make sure that you have all of the necessary permits in place before you start operating your cannabis facility. Start off on the right foot, doing things correctly, with the right permits in place.

This is too much – my cannabis facility has enough regulations to deal with!

We know that all of this might sound a little overwhelming, especially if you’re just starting out in the cannabis industry. But don’t worry, there are resources available to help you navigate the permitting process and make sure that you’re operating in compliance with all of the necessary regulations. Whether you’re just getting started in the cannabis industry or you’re a seasoned pro, it’s always a good idea to work with a knowledgeable consultant who can help you understand the regulations and make sure that you have all of the permits you need to operate your cannabis facility in a responsible and sustainable way.

If you’re running a cannabis facility anywhere in the United States, it’s important to understand the role that NPDES permits play in the industry and how they can impact your operation. While they may not be the first thing you think of when you start your business, they are a critical part of operating in an environmentally responsible way. By having an NPDES permit in place, you can help protect the state’s waterways and minimize the risk of harm to the environment. Win-win, right?

In conclusion, the cannabis industry is growing and expanding, but it’s important to remember that with growth comes responsibility. By obtaining an NPDES permit, you’re not only following the law, but you’re also helping to protect the state’s environment for generations to come. So, let’s work together to make sure that the cannabis industry in New Jersey is operating in a sustainable, environmentally responsible way. If you’re in the cannabis industry, make sure you understand the regulations and have all of the necessary permits in place. And if you need help navigating the permitting process, don’t hesitate to reach out to a knowledgeable consultant who can help guide you through the process.

To learn more – reach out. Our experts are available to help you however we can when it comes to stormwater permits or other areas of environmental compliance at a cannabis facility. Feel free to contact us at info@rmagreen.com, click here to contact us online, or give us a call anytime at 888-RMA-0230 to talk.

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