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Watchdog Report: Good News & Bad News About the Air Quality Permit Backlog

Watchdog work is a cornerstone of what we do here at GASP, and part of that involves keeping a watchful eye on both sources of industrial air pollution and the public officials charged with regulating them.

As part of this effort, we have been tracking a backlog for new and renewed operating permits for major sources of air pollution in both Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Southwest Regional Office since 2016.

But let’s step back for a minute to explain a couple of things before we get too much further: 

  1. In Allegheny County, air pollution sources are regulated by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD). In the rest of Pennsylvania (at least outside of Philadelphia County), air pollution sources are regulated by DEP, through its six regional offices.  

  2. 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.”  

  3. A major source of air pollution must apply for a Title V Operating Permit once it begins normal operations. That Title V Operating Permit is good for five years, and sources must apply to renew their Title V Operating Permits before their old permits expire. 

  4. The Clean Air Act, Pennsylvania’s air pollution control regulations, 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. 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 emission and permit fees paid by the sources that are subject to the requirements of Title V.

You can read our 2016 and 2018 findings on our blog. 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.  

To the extent that permitting backlogs exist at DEP or ACHD (which uses a fee schedule similar to DEP’s), it stands to reason that the fees used to fund the permitting programs might be inadequate to serve their purpose. 

Here’s what the permit backlogs at ACHD and DEP’s regional offices looked like in 2018 and 2019:Agency or OfficeNumber of Major Sources

2018/2019Number of Major Sources with Backlogged or Unissued Title V Operating Permits

2018/2019Percentage of Major Sources with Backlogged Title V Operating Permits

2018/2019ACHD27/278/730%/26%DEP SWRO71/6114/1520%/25%DEP NWRO61/733/55%/7%DEP NCRO65/630/00%/0%DEP SCRO135/1251/1<1%/<1%DEP NERO69/629/313%/5%DEP SERO94/942/22%/2%

Despite the permitting backlogs, the Environmental Quality Board’s proposed amendments to the fee schedule for DEP’s Air Quality Program were not approved by Pennsylvania’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission (the IRRC).  That means the fee schedule for DEP’s Air Quality Program has not been revised. However, ACHD’s fee schedule is not subject to review by the IRRC and in fact, the Allegheny County Board of Health approved revising existing permit fees and establishing new permit fees at a meeting in May 2020; that revised fee schedule awaits final approval by the Allegheny County Council.

We updated our research on the backlogs again this year, to see whether they grew following the IRRC’s rejection of the proposed fee increases. Here’s what we found. 

There are now 26 major sources in Allegheny County. Two of those facilities have never been issued Title V Operating Permits – Allegheny Ludlum’s Brackenridge Works (also known as ATI) and Eastman Chemical. Further, ACHD has failed to act on renewal applications for four of those facilities within 18 months as its regulations require:FACILITYLOCATIONRenewal Application SubmittedLast Permit ExpiredSunoco Pittsburgh TerminalPittsburgh12/30/20156/30/2016U.S. Steel Clairton Plant Clairton9/26/20163/26/2017Bellefield BoilerPittsburgh6/15/201812/18/2018University of PittsburghPittsburgh6/19/201812/19/2018

When we first looked at ACHD’s Title V backlog in 2016, 11 of the then-27 major sources in Allegheny County had either never been issued a Title V Operating Permit or had an application to renew such a permit pending for more than 18 months (with some applications pending for as many as eight years). ACHD deserves some credit for the work it has done to reduce the number of backlogged major sources, even though it has a significant amount of work still to do.  

For purposes of air quality permitting, DEP’s Southwest Region now 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 Southwest Region to DEP’s Northwest Region in early 2019.  

We currently count 49 major sources in the reduced-size Southwest Region, with nine of those sources having renewal applications for operating permits that have been pending for more than 18 months.  FACILITYLOCATIONRenewal Application SubmittedLast Permit ExpiredArden LandfillChartiers Twp., Washington County11/7/2005; 9/18/20155/7/2006Consolidated Coal Bailey Prep PlantRichhill Twp., Greene County5/25/2006; 1/29/201411/28/2006Ebensburg Power Co.Cambria Twp., Cambria County8/17/20062/19/2007Allegheny Valley Connector LLC Laurel Ridge StationJackson Twp., Cambria County5/11/2007; 1/2/20141/14/2008Equitrans Pratt Compressor StationFranklin Twp., Greene County4/19/201610/20/2016Latrobe Specialty MetalsLatrobe, Westmoreland County7/3/20171/4/2018Dynergy Fayette IIGerman Twp., Fayette County6/19/20171/30/2018Hydro Carbide, IncLatrobe, Westmoreland County5/6/1811/15/18Mostoller Municipal LandfillSomerset Twp., Somerset County10/16/186/26/19

DEP’s Northwest Region (NWRO) now 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 70 active major sources of air pollution in the Northwest Region. Three of those 70 facilities have had renewal applications for their Title V Operating Permits pending for more than 18 months:FacilityLocationPermit Application SubmittedLast Permit ExpiredArmstrong Power, LLCSouth Bend Twp., Armstrong County3/14/2014; 2/26/20159/29/2014Homer City GenerationCenter Twp., Indiana County5/4/201711/16/2017Seward Generating StationEast Wheatfield Twp., Indiana County7/3/20172/11/2018

It is worth noting that each of those three sources were among those transferred from the Southwest Region in early 2019.  

DEP’s Northcentral Region (NCRO) includes Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, and Union Counties.  We counted 57 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 (SCRO) includes Adams, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntington, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry, and York Counties. We counted 102 active major source of air pollution in these counties, none of which has 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 (NERO) includes Carbon, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, Schuykill, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming Counties.  We counted sixty 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: FacilityLocationPermit Application SubmittedLast Permit ExpiredIngenco Wholesale PowerPine Grove Twp., Schuykill County2/23/201511/19/2015American Zinc RecyclingPalmerton Boro, Carbon County9/25/20183/25/2019

DEP’s Southeast Region (SERO) 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 89 active major sources of air pollution in the Southeast Region, one of which have had renewal applications for Title V Operating Permits pending for more than 18 months:FacilityLocationPermit Application SubmittedLast Permit ExpiredMonroe Energy Trainer RefineryMarcus Hook Boro, Delaware County8/3/201812/27/2018

This chart summarizes the performance of all the regions discussed above, as well as the performance of ACHD and DEP’s Southwest Region as discussed in our earlier blogs:Agency or Regional OfficeNumber of Major Sources

2018/2019/2020Number of Major Sources with Backlogged or Unissued Title V Operating Permits

2018/2019/2020Percentage of Major Sources with Backlogged Title V Operating Permits


Thus, in the last year, the regulatory agencies have succeeded in shrinking, and in two cases eliminating, their Title V permit backlogs, despite no increases in the Title V permitting and emissions fees.  

“The good news is that even without increased fees, ACHD and all six of DEP’s regional offices managed to shrink the size of their Title V permit backlogs. Two of DEP’s regional offices even managed to eliminate their backlogs entirely,” senior staff attorney John Baillie said. “The bad news is that significant permit backlogs still exist at both ACHD and DEP’s Southwest Regional Office.”

“Additionally, the need to increase fees is still critical as they impact the local and state’s program’s ability to effectively conduct inspections, respond to complaints, and pursue enforcement actions, when necessary,” he added.

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