Significant Number of Power Plants Did Not Obtain New Source Review Permits, GAO Says

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By Jessica Coomes  

A significant number of coal-fired electricity generating units have not obtained new source review permits as required, the Government Accountability Office reported July 23.

The Environmental Protection Agency has investigated 831 coal-fired units since 1999 through its power plant enforcement initiative, and the agency has alleged noncompliance at 467 units through notices of violation, court complaints, or settlements, GAO said.

Under the Clean Air Act's new source review permitting program, new and modified industrial sources must obtain permits that require emissions limits and the installation of emissions control equipment. In 1999, EPA launched a coal-fired power plant enforcement initiative to address new source review compliance.

GAO said new source review data are not complete, however, because EPA has not yet investigated all coal-fired units for compliance, and EPA's determinations of compliance have changed over time.

Administered on Case-By-Case Basis.

The GAO report underlined the complexity of ensuring compliance with the new source review program, which EPA, states, and local agencies do on a case-by-case basis.

It is difficult--both for regulators and industry--to determine when a new source review permit is required, the report found.

“[T]he two steps for determining applicability--first, whether the unit is making a physical or operational change and, second, whether this change would result in a significant net increase of emissions--are not categorically defined and have changed over time,” GAO said.

It also is difficult for EPA and state and local agencies to identify noncompliance, “partly because owners of generating units determine whether a permit is needed, and in many cases their determinations are not reviewed by permitting agencies or EPA.”

Data Not Centralized.

GAO said EPA does not maintain centralized data on new source review permits, and it does not track whether local permitting agencies address EPA's comments when issuing new source review (NSR) permits.

“The absence of more complete information on NSR permitting makes it difficult to know which units have obtained NSR permits or to assess how state and local permitting agencies vary from EPA in their interpretations of NSR requirements,” GAO said.

GAO recommended EPA consider developing centralized data on new source review permits and periodically evaluate the effects of its comments on permits.

Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, told GAO in comments June 15 that the recommended actions are unnecessary. She said EPA has programs in place to track permits, and regional offices evaluate the effects of EPA's comments on permits.

GAO issued the report June 22 to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Oversight. GAO released the report publicly July 23.

By Jessica Coomes  

The GAO report, EPA Needs Better Information on New Source Review Permits, is available online at