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GASP INVESTIGATES: Progress Reducing Air Quality Permit Backlog Made, But Too Many Major Sources Ope

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

One of the cornerstones of GASP’s clean air advocacy is watchdog work. We keep a close eye on more than just air quality data and emissions emanating from industrial polluters – we also work to keep air quality regulators accountable. 

Here in Allegheny County, that means keeping track of how efficiently our air local quality regulator, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD), is managing the issuance of new air quality permits and the renewal of old ones. 

GASP’s legal team first sounded the alarm about a backlog of applications for new or renewed Title V Operating Permits for major sources of air pollution in Allegheny County way back in 2016. Since then, we’ve provided periodic updates about ACHD’s efforts to whittle down that backlog, and even expanded our watchdog work to include information regarding the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) permit backlog.

“Yes, strides have been made by the county and state level to reduce the backlog. But there are still too many major sources of air pollution currently operating under an expired permit – and amazingly some that are operating without any operating permit at all,” GASP Executive Director Patrick Campbell said. “It’s clear that more must be done.”

Here’s what our research uncovered:

First, a little bit of background info: Operating permits for major sources of air pollution are required by Title V of the Clean Air Act and are commonly called Title V Operating Permits. A Title V Operating Permit for a particular facility must contain all of the operating requirements that air pollution laws impose on it. This helps facilitate compliance with those requirements – both regulators and the public can use a facility’s Title V Operating Permit to see what requirements it has to help determine whether the facility is complying with them.

A major source must apply for a Title V Operating Permit once it begins normal operations. Good for five years, sources must apply to renew their Title V Operating Permits before their old ones expire. The Clean Air Act, Pennsylvania’s air pollution control rules, and local air pollution control regulations require ACHD complete its review of any complete permit application within 18 months.  

Notably, the Clean Air Act allows a source that has submitted a complete application for a Title V Operating Permit to continue to operate pending the responsible agency’s final approval of the application, even if agency approval takes years. The Clean Air Act also requires that the operations of the state and local programs that administer Title V Operating Permits be funded entirely from the emissions and permit fees paid by the sources subject to the requirements of Title V.

We first blogged about the backlogs of applications for new and renewed operating permits for major sources of air pollution that existed in Allegheny County, where such sources are regulated by ACHD and DEP’s Southwest Regional Office (SWRO) in September 2016.   

In April 2018, we updated that research and expanded it to include sources permitted by DEP’s other five regional offices. We updated  that research again in 2019, 2020, and 2021.  

Notably, the fees that DEP charges for permit applications were increased in early 2021.  The old fee structure was purportedly insufficient to fund the operations of DEP’s Air Quality Bureau and the increased fees are purportedly sufficient to allow the Air Quality Bureau to fulfill its mission.  ACHD also revised its fee schedule to track DEP’s in 2021.

“This is really the first year that we would hope to see if the fee increases are having a positive effect on turnaround times for Title V Operating Permits but, in fact, it looks like the fee increases, unfortunately, have had little positive impact,” GASP senior attorney John Baillie said.

Here’s where things stand now:

There are now 23 major sources operating in Allegheny County and two of those facilities have applied for, but have never been issued, Title V Operating Permits: ATI Flat-Rolled Products (which was formerly known as Allegheny Ludlum Brackenridge Works) and Eastman Chemicals & Resins.  

Although ACHD published a draft Title V Operating Permit for Allegheny Ludlum’s Brackenridge Works in 2016, that draft revealed problems with the way proposed emission limits for the facility were determined and those problems have yet to be resolved, further delaying issuance of the Title V Operating Permit.  

Eastman Chemical is subject to a 2011 federal and state Consent Decree that has a direct impact on its air quality permits and that effectively precluded the issuance of a Title V Operating Permit until it has been satisfied (which has yet to occur). Eastman Chemical finally submitted its application for a Title V Operating Permit earlier this year.  

Then there are the facilities with expired permits. ACHD has failed to act on renewal applications for another three of those 23 major sources within 18 months as its regulations require:

Now let’s pivot to DEP’s permit backlog, which we will examine by region. 

DEP’s Southwest Region

For purposes of air quality permitting, the region includes sources in Beaver, Cambria, Greene, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties. Responsibility for administering the Title V permitting program for sources in Armstrong and Indiana Counties was transferred from the SWRO to DEP’s Northwest Regional Office in early 2019.  

We currently count 51 major sources in the Southwest Region. One of those facilities, the Brunner Landfill in Beaver County, has applied for, but never been issued, a Title V Operating Permit.  

Another six sources in the SWRO have renewal applications for operating permits that have been pending for more than 18 months.

DEP’s Northwest Region

The Northwest Regional Office includes Armstrong and Indiana Counties for Title V permitting purposes, as well as Butler, Clarion, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, and Venango Counties.  We count 65 active major sources of air pollution in the Northwest Region.

One of those 65 facilities has had a renewal application for its Title V Operating Permit pending for more than 18 months:

DEP’s Northcentral Region

DEP’s Northcentral Region includes Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, and Union Counties. We counted 53 major sources of air pollution in the Northcentral Region. None of them have a renewal application that has been pending for more than 18 months. All sites in the region either have a current Title V Operating Permit or submitted an application for a renewal within the last 18 months.  

DEP’s Southcentral Region 

DEP’s Southcentral Region includes Adams, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntington, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry, and York Counties.  We counted 111 active major sources of air pollution in these counties, none of which have had a renewal application for a Title V Operating Permit pending for more than eighteen months. All major sources in DEP’s Southcentral Region either have a current Title V Operating Permit or submitted a renewal application within the last 18 months.

DEP’s Northeast Region 

DEP’s Northeast Region includes Carbon, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, Schuykill, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming Counties. We counted 60 active major sources of air pollution in those counties, four of which have had applications for their Title V Operating Permits pending for at least 18 months.

The American Zinc Recycling facility is subject to a proposed Consent Decree with the United States and DEP that involves violations of the air pollution laws; presumably, the Title V Operating Permit for that facility will not be renewed until the facility has fully complied with that Consent Decree and its terms can be incorporated into the permit.  

Also worth noting: DEP’s eFACTS website (which tracks the status of facility permits) does not show that Keystone Recovery has applied to renew or replace its operating permit as of May 25, 2022; a source violates the air pollution laws if it continues to operate without submitting a timely application to renew or replace its operating permit.

DEP’s Southeast Region 

DEP’s Southeast Region includes Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties for purposes of permitting sources of air pollution (Philadelphia’s Air Management Services administers the Title V permitting program for facilities located in Philadelphia).

We counted 86 active major sources of air pollution in the Southeast Region, three of which have had renewal applications for Title V Operating Permits pending for more than 18 months.

Here’s a summary of what the permit backlogs at ACHD and DEP’s regional offices have looked like since 2018:

“The results of this year’s investigation are really a mixed bag,” Baillie said.  “It is encouraging to see how the agencies have improved their performance in recent years, but discouraging to see that some agencies still lag behind even after they increased permitting fees.”

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