Updated: Sep 13
A cornerstone 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 permits for major sources of air pollution in Allegheny County 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 state Department of Environmental Protection’s permit backlog, as well.
“Our investigation found that while strides have been made at both the county and state level to reduce the backlog, there are still too many major sources of air pollution currently operating under an old permit – and some that are operating without any operating permit,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said.
Here’s what our research uncovered:
Understanding Title V Operating Permits: What They Are, Who Needs Them, and Rules About How They’re Issued
Operating permits for major sources of air pollution are required by Title V of the Clean Air Act, and thus are commonly called “Title V Operating Permits.” A Title V Operating Permit for a particular facility must contain all of the operating requirements that the air pollution laws impose on the facility.
This helps facilitate compliance with those requirements – both regulators and the public can use a facility’s Title V Operating Permit to determine what requirements it has and to help determine whether or not it 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 Allegheny County’s air pollution control regulations all require that the agency responsible for issuing Title V Operating Permits complete its review of any complete permit application within 18 months.
Notably, the Clean Air Act permits 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 the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Southwest Regional Office 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 April 2019, following a proposal by Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board to amend the fee schedule for permits issued by DEP’s Air Quality Program, and again in June 2020.
For those who haven’t been following the issue: DEP sought to amend the fee schedule for the Air Quality Program because the program was running out of money and purportedly faced budget cuts that would make it difficult or impossible for the program to carry out its work.
The proposed revisions to DEP’s air quality fee schedule finally became effective this past January.
“Going forward, the Air Quality Program should not be hamstrung by lack of resources caused by inadequate revenues,” GASP senior attorney John Baillie explained. “Although it is probably too early for any benefits from increased revenues from the new fee schedule to be reflected in current backlog totals, this year’s totals could serve as a baseline in future years for judging the effectiveness of the fee schedule at providing the Air Quality Program with the resources it needs to do its job.”
ACHD approved fee schedule revisions that closely track DEP’s in 2021, so when they are finally approved by the county, ACHD should similarly have adequate resources going forward to do its job.
We updated our research on the backlogs again this year. Here’s what we found:
This year, there are now 24 major sources of air pollution in Allegheny County. Of those, two have never been issued Title V Operating Permits – Allegheny Ludlum’s Brackenridge Works and Eastman Chemicals & Resins.
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 precludes the issuance of a Title V Operating Permit until it has been satisfied (which has yet to occur).
Further, ACHD has failed to act on renewal applications for another one of those 24 major sources within 18 months as its regulations require.
For purposes of air quality permitting, DEP’s Southwest Regional Office includes sources in Beaver, Cambria, Greene, Somerset, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties. It’s important to note that responsibility for administering the Title V permitting program for sources in Armstrong and Indiana Counties was transferred in early 2019 from Southwest Regional to DEP’s Northwest Regional Office.
We currently count 50 major sources in the Southwest Region, with nine of those having renewal applications for operating permits that have been pending for more than 18 months. One other source in the southwest Region – the Brunner Landfill – has never been issued a Title V Operating Permit.
In addition to Armstrong and Indiana Counties, the Northwest Region Office is also responsible for Title V permitting for Butler, Clarion, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, and Venango Counties. There, we count 68 active major sources of air pollution. One of those 68 facilities has had a renewal application for its Title V Operating Permit pending for more than 18 months.
DEP’s Northcentral Region includes Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, and Union counties. We counted 54 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 and 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 includes Adams, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntington, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry, and York counties. We counted 114 active major sources of air pollution in these counties, none of which has had a renewal application for a Title V Operating Permit pending for more than 18 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 includes Carbon, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, Schuykill, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming counties. We counted 62 active major sources of air pollution in those counties, two 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 that Consent Decree is finalized and its terms can be incorporated into the permit.
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 88 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.