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Allegheny County Controller: ACHD’s Taken “Encouraging Steps” to Stave Off Air Quality Permit Backlog

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner on Tuesday said her office’s audit of the County Health Department’s (ACHD) Clean Air Act permitting program showed improvements in 2019 over its previous audit five years before but added that it continued to fall short of full compliance with its obligations under federal law.

Title V Section 503(c) of the Clean Air Act indicates that permitting authorities such as ACHD “shall approve or disapprove a completed [Title V operating permit] application, and shall issue or deny the permit, within 18 months after the date of receipt thereof.”

The issuance of Title V operating permits to major pollution sources is what triggers the requirement for these sources to certify at least annually that they are Title V compliant. When Title V permits are outstanding, major sources can avoid providing these certifications.  

The issuance of Title V operating permits, which typically include the compliance requirements contained in any installation and other permits issued, also facilitates compliance monitoring and enforcement.

“Both the manufacturing companies that apply for these permits and the general public deserve to have clear expectations and information on what these facilities are allowed to emit, which requires permit issuance in a timely fashion in compliance with the federal Clean Air Act,” Wagner said in a press release. “I’m encouraged by the progress made by the Health Department in this regard, and by their openness and cooperation in this audit.”

As of Dec. 31, 2019, ACHD had not issued or denied Title V operating permits for seven of the 31 major sources in Allegheny County within 18 months from the date that complete permit applications were received. 

GASP has 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 and is heartened by the audit findings.

“We hope the downward trend in outstanding permits continues, and that DEP works just as diligently to get its own backlog down,” GASP Executive Director Rachel Filippini said. “Air quality remains a serious public health issue in the Keystone State generally and Allegheny County in particular – regulators must remain vigilant.”

A major source is generally a stationary source of air pollutants that emits or has the potential to emit 100 tons per year of any air pollutant, 50 tons per year of volatile organic compounds, 10 tons per year of any hazardous air pollutant, or 25 tons per year of a combination of hazardous air pollutants.

Three outstanding applications were initial permit applications while the other four applications were renewal applications.

ACHD developed a formal corrective action plan to eliminate the permitting backlog at the request of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in June of 2018. The corrective action plan submitted by the ACHD sought the elimination of the backlog within three years. ACHD’s communications with auditors indicated significant progress toward this goal, Wagner said.

“I am pleased that my office’s previous audits were able to help the ACHD and the public identify the permitting backlog as an issue of concern, and lead to the concerted effort and measurable progress we have seen to rectify it,” Wagner said.

The audit noted that circumstances beyond the ACHD’s control involving further federal compliance issues have impacted its ability to issue Title V operating permits to three of the major sources.

In addition, public comment on one outstanding draft permit ended Aug. 17, 2020, and ACHD management indicated that the final permit may be issued shortly. Another draft permit has been reviewed by the ACHD and is currently in a pre-public-comment review by the company. A further draft permit has been completed and is currently being reviewed internally by the ACHD.  

ACHD management advised auditors that draft permits for the other major sources that compose the Title V operating permit backlog are also in various stages of completion.

The previous audit cited understaffing in the permitting program as a primary reason for the backlog, which led the ACHD to engage an outside consultant to recommend an adequate staffing level. However, the ACHD was still short of the recommended staffing level by two full-time equivalent (FTE) positions at the end of 2019.

The ACHD created two new full-time Engineer Trainee positions in 2018. These positions had not been filled during the period of the audit, but ACHD management informed auditors they were filled in early 2020. One of the ACHD’s Permitting Engineers also left the ACHD’s employ during 2018, which resulted in the ACHD being three full-time equivalents (FTEs) short of the recommended staffing level at the beginning of 2019.  

ACHD did add two part-time contractors as Permitting Engineers during 2019, one in March and one in November.

The ACHD lost one Permitting Engineer in March of 2020 who transitioned to a position in another area of the ACHD’s Air Quality Program, leaving the ACHD still one FTE short of the recommended Permitting Engineer staffing level, but ACHD management has indicated that it is attempting to fill the position.

“The professional resources we choose to dedicate to a given government function are always an indication of the importance we place on it, and I am encouraged that ACHD looks to have made progress on correcting the understaffing issues identified in our previous audit,” Wagner said.

The Controller’s office also examined the books of the Title V Air Quality Fund, which collects all emission fees, related interest, and other fees required by Title V of the Clean Air Act. The fees and related interest collected can only be used to fund the costs of developing and administering a pollution control program in accordance with Title V of the Clean Air Act.

The Fund collected approximately $1.5 million in 2019, primarily from four sources: U.S. Steel Clairton Works ($641,838), U.S. Steel Irvin Plant ($350,701), Genon Midwest LP Cheswick ($189,924), and U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Works ($169,943).

“The receipts to this fund illustrate the significant emissions from some of the major industrial facilities in the County, and that these are concentrated in some of our most economically disadvantaged communities. We know that high levels of emissions have real health effects on our population, especially our most vulnerable children and seniors,” Wagner said. “We must continue to be forward-thinking in our efforts to reduce harmful environmental conditions even as we support and maintain the quality jobs these facilities provide. This is not a zero-sum game.”

Editor’s Note: View the Independent Auditor’s Report Allegheny County Health Department Title V Air Quality Fund for the Year Ended December 31, 2019. 

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