State audit targets DEQ's air quality permit backlog

DEQ outlines efforts in responding statement

SALEM, Ore. - (Update: DEQ issues responding statement)

Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released an audit Wednesday of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Permitting Program, finding a "significant" processing backlog that needs addressing.

Here's his news release on the audit:

 Air quality permits regulate the types and amounts of air pollution businesses are allowed to emit based on federal and state pollution limits. The audit found a significant backlog in air quality permits. Untimely permits, combined with a current backlog of inspections, endanger the health of Oregonians and the state’s environment. DEQ should evaluate staffing and workloads among air quality permit writers and provide better guidance to both staff and businesses.

The findings are outlined in the audit report entitled: “DEQ Should Improve the Air Quality Permitting Process to Reduce Its Permit Backlog and Better Safeguard Oregon’s Air.”

“Maintaining Oregon’s air quality is crucial for protecting the health of Oregonians throughout the state,” Richardson said. "DEQ's tracking and inspections are insufficient. The agency must take immediate action to reduce their backlog and preserve the quality of Oregonians' health and the state's environment."

The Clean Air Act and DEQ rules and guidelines establish timeframes for issuing new permits, renewing existing permits, and conducting inspections. Approximately 9% of permit renewals take more than five years and are actually issued after the point when the next renewal should have been done. Auditors found that 43% (106 out of 246) of DEQ’s largest and most complex air quality permits are overdue for renewal. Some inspections are also overdue. Additionally, more than 40% of the most complex permits issued from 2007 to 2017 exceeded established timeframes—some by several years.

DEQ struggles to issue timely air quality permits due to a variety of factors:

  • The air quality permitting process is not fully or consistently documented. When processes are not documented, controlling and improving them is challenging, making it difficult to find more efficient ways to issue permits.
  • Inadequate staffing is impairing the ability of DEQ to provide permitting services and is impacting their ability to perform critical investigations. Vacancies and position cuts create unmanageable and unrealistic workloads. Of 28 permit writing positions, seven (25%) were vacant as of August 2017.
  • Timekeeping data from 2015 to 2016 indicated that permit writers spent only an average of 49% of their time on permitting activities.
  • A lack of consistent guidance and support for staff slows the permitting process. Federal and state air quality rules are getting more complex, but permit writers are receiving less guidance and support from operational staff at DEQ headquarters.
  • Clear and accessible guidance to permit applicants is lacking, increasing the time permit writers spend on technical assistance.
  • Lack of adequate permit and inspection tracking.
  • DEQ has diverted key staff to other projects such as the Governor’s Cleaner Air Oregon initiative.

Air quality permit renewals incorporate new and updated federal and state rules. However, while DEQ evaluates permit renewals, businesses continue operating under their old permits. When permits are not renewed on time, businesses may not have to provide DEQ with data showing they are complying with these new rules.

These delays create a “gray area” that is hard to enforce, should a facility violate a new standard that is not yet incorporated into the permits. Combined with the current backlog of inspections, delayed permit issuance endangers the health of Oregonians and the state’s environment.

For example, there are approximately 150 auto body shops in the Portland area that opted out of a General ACDP permit which are still in need of a Basic ACDP seven years later. Some of these businesses have likely been emitting volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog for seven years due to DEQ’s delays.

In an extreme example, an asphalt company with numerous compliance violations was required to apply for a stricter permit. In 2012, they submitted a Standard ACDP, which is the highest level of ACDP. However, as of November 2017, DEQ still had not issued the permit, which means the company has been allowed to operate under lower standards for years and has not been inspected since 2011.

Drawing on examples from other states, the audit recommends that DEQ evaluate permit writer workloads and staffing, improve permit and inspection tracking, provide better guidance to permit writers and businesses, and conduct a process improvement effort.

“Timely permits not only help protect Oregon’s air quality, but provide much-needed certainty to businesses trying to comply with complicated federal regulations,” said Richardson. “Improving the permitting process and reducing the backlog will make it easier for businesses to comply with their permits and help Oregon remain competitive with other states.”

Read the full audit on the Secretary of State’s website or highlights on the Audits Division blog.

Here's DEQ's statement in response to the audit's findings:

Today, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released a performance audit of Oregon's programs for controlling air pollution from factories and other businesses. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality welcomes the audit, and agrees with the audit findings and recommendations. DEQ's specific responses to the audit are available here:

The audit identifies a significant backlog in DEQ's work to renew air quality permits and carry out inspections as a result of limited resources, increased demands and needed process improvements. Another external review of DEQ's water quality permitting program—completed a year ago—found similar issues.

With direction from the Secretary of State's Audit Division—as well as an independent consultant's report on the Water Quality program—DEQ is implementing a strategic approach to rebuild its core programs. Governor Brown, the Environmental Quality Commission, and the legislature support this effort and are confident we will restore Oregon's place as a national leader in environmental quality.

Director Richard Whitman is implementing the following steps as part of a comprehensive effort to restore clarity of leadership and accountability in the agency.

• First, DEQ is returning to a structure with clear agency leads for Water, Air and Land Quality. These three administrators will set annual performance expectations for each of the programs.
• Second, DEQ's Implementation Administrator will track performance in each of the three regions that the agency works in, and adjust resources and priorities as necessary for core permitting and compliance work to stay on track.
• Third, DEQ's clean water permitting program (which has suffered from a backlog of overdue permit renewals similar to that found in the air quality program) is launching a major initiative based on significant process improvements, eight dedicated permit writers working under central supervision, and a commitment to issuing at least 40 updated permits in 2018. View the Water Quality permit issuance plan here:
• Fourth, DEQ has agreed to work with EPA Region 10 and other states to improve our procedures for both air permitting and inspections – keeping permits up to date and assuring the public that we are meeting our targets for inspections.
• Fifth, one cause of the backlog in air quality work identified by the Secretary of State is the time spent responding to public concerns about air toxics that may be associated with particular companies. Completing the work to develop and implement the Cleaner Air Oregon program will allow staff to return to their regular duties.
• Finally, DEQ is working with its partners to explore further changes to how we update water and air permits. It should be in everyone's interest that permits are up-to-date. Making that happen likely will require action by the Oregon legislature in 2019.

Director Richard Whitman said, “These changes will put us in the best possible position to protect Oregonians and their environment. While, ultimately, we will need Oregon's legislature to decide what funding is appropriate for clean air and clean water, we understand that we must first demonstrate that we have done everything possible with existing resources.”

Nationwide recruitments for new water quality and air quality administrators opened on November 17, 2017. DEQ is also hiring a new Implementation Administrator. More details about these positions are available here:

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