The Advocate: Groups ask EPA to press La. on air permits

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By Amy Wold, Advocate staff writer

A Louisiana environmental group sent a petition to the EPA on Wednesday asking the federal agency to either force the state to improve its air permit program or take it over.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Environmental Integrity Project, a national organization, sent the petition to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claiming that the state Department of Environmental Quality is failing to collect enough fees to operate the program, issue permits in a timely fashion, monitor to ensure facilities obey permits and enforce the permits.

“What prompted this is consistent, ongoing pollution in the state,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the bucket brigade. “And no support from DEQ.”

Officials and staff at DEQ said that the petition is filled with errors.

The petition says, in part, that DEQ fails to issue permits on a timely basis, which Rolfes said is because the agency doesn’t charge what it should in fees.

“That’s just completely inaccurate,” said Sam Phillips, assistant secretary of DEQ’s Office of Environmental Services. Title V permits must be issued within 300 days of DEQ receiving the application, he said.

“That is a state law, and we meet that consistently,” Phillips said. These permits have to be reviewed every five years, and the state has 18 months to perform the work. Currently, there are 120 permits pending within that 18-month time period and 10 that are outside that time period because of disagreements about the permit between DEQ and the facility.

“The company is the issue, not resources at DEQ,” he said.

Rolfes said fee collection is a problem and that DEQ underfunds the air permit program by not collecting enough from the facilities the agency is supposed to regulate. She said DEQ staff will say that it doesn’t have the resources to do certain tasks, but will then tell her that they don’t need any additional money.

“That just shows they’re not well managed,” Rolfes said.

The petition states that DEQ spends $4.4 million a year on the Title V program, not nearly enough to do the job.

However, Vince Sagnibene, DEQ undersecretary, said the agency spends about $8 million a year on the air permit program and collects between $10 million and $11 million in permit and facility fees.

“So I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers from,” he said.

The petition also states that penalties assessed by DEQ “are a little more than a slap on the wrist” and says in 2010 the average Clean Air Act violation was $1,329.86.

However, Cheryl Nolan, DEQ assistant secretary of environmental compliance, said she’s not sure where the petition’s authors obtained their numbers, but she said it appears they didn’t count everything that gets issued as a penalty. There are settlements and various forms of penalties that DEQ assesses — in 2010, DEQ had 100 enforcement actions of $1.1 million.

“That doesn’t add up to $1,300 per violation,” Nolan said.

The full petition is available at http://www.environmentalintegrity.org.

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