One-third of major US air polluters still lack pollution permits

Nearly a third of all factories, power-plants and other major sources of atmospheric pollution in the U.S. still do not have permits required under the Clean Air Act, according to documents released by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

In effect, this means that many of the worst air polluters are being shielded from both regulatory control and public scrutiny, says PEER.

Jeffrey Ruch, Executive Director of PEER told edie, “This issue for the EPA is like an elephant in the closet – it’s hard to ignore but no-one wants to talk about it”.

“In the 1970’s we inacted national laws but the way they’re implemented is by delegation to the States. The EPA simply can’t control them,” he said.

A statutory deadline for issuance of all ‘major source’ permits was set in 1997. However, the EPA has been unable to implement the required permits for these air polluters. According to PEER, this failure has remained an open secret within agency circles – an unpublished draft from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General in October 2001, suggested that the absence of operating permits undermines monitoring, enforcement and pollution prevention – all the basic building blocks of an effective clean air programme.

Several of the eastern industrial states with the worst air pollution problems have the lowest rates of permit issuance. New Jersey has issued only 30% of its major polluting sources, Massachusetts only 32%. Regionally New England has the lowest rate whereas in contrast, the Rocky Mountain region has the highest rate at 91%.

Statements from the EPA suggest that the reason so many sources have yet to be issued with permits, is because they represent the toughest pollution problems. On 4 December 2001, Jeffrey Holmstead, head of the EPA’s Air Office, distributed a statement assessing the inability to meet statutory deadlines in the stationary source programme, referred to as Title V of the Clean Air Act. “We’re more than 10 years into the title V programme, yet only about two-third of the major sources in the country have received their Title V permits. And most of the largest, most complex – and most important – sources remain un-permitted and are operating under the so-called application shield”.

The application shield allows polluters to operate if they have applied for a permit, a process that the EPA Inspector General estimates takes an average of 3.2 years. EPA predicts that it may close the gap in permit issuance by 2004 at the earliest.

“The Clean Air Act must be implemented before it can be expected to work,” stated Kyla Bennett, Director of New England PEER, and a former EPA attorney. “The poor track records for the industrial New England states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island should be setting off alarm bells.”

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