Air Permitting Violations May No Longer Be an EPA Priority

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By Amena H. Saiyid

Refineries and power plants that need permits for their air pollution could face less scrutiny from the EPA as the agency considers dropping a 20-year-old enforcement priority.

As part of its assessment of which environmental violations will most need attention in fiscal years 2020 through 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether new source review permitting should be dropped from the list after 21 years.

Making the permitting process easier has been a top priority of the Trump administration.

“This latest maneuver to downgrade enforcement further is part of an EPA vendetta against sensible health safeguards that prevent industries from increasing danger air pollution wildly,” John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Air, Climate & Clean Energy Program, told Bloomberg Environment on Feb. 5. “Americans deserve better than lax EPA law enforcement.”

The EPA said the air pollution permitting enforcement initiative, which began in 1999 and targeted energy giants like Duke Energy Corp. and American Electric Power, doesn’t present nearly as many targets that would provide significant public health gains at this point.

Permitting Process

Large industrial facilities like power plants are required to obtain new source review permits when they expand or make modifications that increase air pollution.

The proposal is included in EPA’s draft four-year national compliance initiatives plan, released Feb. 4.

The plan, updated every four years, is meant to help the EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance target resources on the most serious environmental violations.

The EPA also is seeking comment on new initiatives to reduce children’s exposure to lead, improving the ability of water utilities to meet drinking standards, and whether to continue addressing violations stemming from leaks of hazardous air pollutants.

Pollution Dropping

According to the agency, its enforcement efforts since 1998 have led to a 90 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions and an 83 percent drop in nitrogen oxides.

More than 90 percent of facilities in the glass, cement, and acid manufacturing sectors have installed new pollution controls as a result of the initiative, the EPA said.

The EPA, however, “fails to mention other major industrial categories with NSR grandfathering concerns like petroleum refineries and power plants,” Meredith J. Hankins, a Shapiro Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law, told Bloomberg Environment Feb. 5.

Far from being resolved, avoidance and outright noncompliance with new source review remains a pressing issue, Hankins said.

The EPA itself said that more than 80 percent of existing coal-fired power plants have emission rates exceeding those typically required under new source review program, Hankins said, citing the Trump EPA’s rewrite of carbon dioxide standards for power plants. That rule included a provision to streamline the new permitting program.

Streamlining?

Businesses have complained that the new source review permitting process is burdensome and complicated.

The Trump administration has sought to change how nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide pollution increases are calculated for permitting purposes. It also has issued a rule allowing power plants, factories, and refineries to treat multiple changes at their facilities as a single project for permitting purposes.

Eric L. Hiser, a partner with Phoenix-based Jorden Hiser & Joy PLC who regularly blogs about new source review developments, said it makes sense for the EPA to stop making new source review violations an enforcement priority.

“They are not seeing the emissions reductions that were to be had in the earlier days when it was an enforcement priority,” Hiser said.

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