By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
Two environmental groups on Wednesday petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency to force the state to do a better job enforcing federal air pollution laws. The move follows an EPA inspector general’s report criticizing the federal agency for not requiring Louisiana and other states to rigorously enforce federal clean water, clean air and hazardous waste laws.
In its petition, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the national Environmental Integrity Project said Louisiana spent only an average of $4.4 million a year between 2005 and 2010 on permitting and enforcement, $10 million less than minimum standards recommended by the EPA. That money is collected from fees charged to the industry, the petition states.
The petition also claimed that Louisiana spent less than $5,000 per facility on the program in 2008, which the groups contend is insufficient for issuing permits, monitoring some of the nation’s most complex petrochemical plants and taking enforcement actions. That same year, Texas spent about $21,000 per facility.
The petition states that Louisiana’s average penalty for Clean Air Act violations was only $1,329.86 in 2010, the second-lowest in the nation. Texas’ average penalty was $26,619.92.
The groups also charge that the state Department of Environmental Quality conducted compliance evaluations of only 75 percent of major facilities between 2009 and 2010, while the EPA requires states to complete evaluations for all major facilities every two years.
DEQ officials denied the charges, saying the state finances its enforcement program both with the EPA-allowed permit fees and other fees, which the environmental groups didn’t count in their analysis.
“They say we collected $4 million, when in reality, we collect close to $10 (million) or $11 million in fees,” said Sam Phillips, assistant secretary and director of the Office of Environmental Services. “We feel like we have adequate funding.”
Phillips said the petition also mischaracterized the department’s permit renewal record as allowing 10 percent of applications to remain pending for 18 months or longer.
“There are over 850 permits and each has to get renewed every 5 years,” said Phillips, who noted that each permit takes 18 months to complete. “That’s 170 permits a year. In 2007, we had a backlog in the 90 to 100 range, but as of last month, we had only 10 permits that had gone beyond an 18-month period.”
While the petition says the delays are because the department doesn’t have enough manpower, Phillips said the remaining permits are being delayed because the industries object to stringent DEQ requirements.
“There are no permits outstanding longer than 18 months that we do not have a permit writer assigned to,” he said.