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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 Office Number of Major Sources

2018/2019

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

2018/2019

Percentage of Major Sources with Backlogged Title V Operating Permits

2018/2019

ACHD 27/27 8/7 30%/26%
DEP SWRO 71/61 14/15 20%/25%
DEP NWRO 61/73 3/5 5%/7%
DEP NCRO 65/63 0/0 0%/0%
DEP SCRO 135/125 1/1 <1%/<1%
DEP NERO 69/62 9/3 13%/5%
DEP SERO 94/94 2/2 2%/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:

FACILITY LOCATION Renewal Application Submitted Last Permit Expired
Sunoco Pittsburgh Terminal Pittsburgh 12/30/2015 6/30/2016
U.S. Steel Clairton Plant  Clairton 9/26/2016 3/26/2017
Bellefield Boiler Pittsburgh 6/15/2018 12/18/2018
University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh 6/19/2018 12/19/2018

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.  

FACILITY LOCATION Renewal Application Submitted Last Permit Expired
Arden Landfill Chartiers Twp., Washington County 11/7/2005; 9/18/2015 5/7/2006
Consolidated Coal Bailey Prep Plant Richhill Twp., Greene County 5/25/2006;
1/29/2014
11/28/2006
Ebensburg Power Co. Cambria Twp., Cambria County 8/17/2006 2/19/2007
Allegheny Valley Connector LLC Laurel Ridge Station Jackson Twp., Cambria County 5/11/2007;
1/2/2014
1/14/2008
Equitrans Pratt Compressor Station Franklin Twp., Greene County 4/19/2016 10/20/2016
Latrobe Specialty Metals Latrobe, Westmoreland County 7/3/2017 1/4/2018
Dynergy Fayette II German Twp., Fayette County 6/19/2017 1/30/2018
Hydro Carbide, Inc Latrobe, Westmoreland County 5/6/18 11/15/18
Mostoller Municipal Landfill Somerset Twp., Somerset County 10/16/18 6/26/19

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:

Facility Location Permit Application Submitted Last Permit Expired
Armstrong Power, LLC South Bend Twp., Armstrong County 3/14/2014; 2/26/2015 9/29/2014
Homer City Generation Center Twp., Indiana County 5/4/2017 11/16/2017
Seward Generating Station East Wheatfield Twp., Indiana County 7/3/2017 2/11/2018

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: 

Facility Location Permit Application Submitted Last Permit Expired
Ingenco Wholesale Power Pine Grove Twp., Schuykill County 2/23/2015 11/19/2015
American Zinc Recycling Palmerton Boro, Carbon County 9/25/2018 3/25/2019

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:

Facility Location Permit Application Submitted Last Permit Expired
Monroe Energy Trainer Refinery Marcus Hook Boro, Delaware County 8/3/2018 12/27/2018

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 Office Number of Major Sources

2018/2019/2020

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

2018/2019/2020

Percentage of Major Sources with Backlogged Title V Operating Permits

2018/2019/2020

ACHD 27/27/26 8/7/6 30%/26%/23%
SWRO 71/61/49 14/15/9 20%/25%/18%
NWRO 61/73/70 3/5/3 5%/7%/4%
NCRO 65/63/57 0/0/0 0%/0%/0%
SCRO 135/125/102 1/1/0 <1%/<1%/0%
NERO 69/62/60 9/3/2 13%/5%/3%
SERO 94/94/89 2/2/1 2%/2%/1%

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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