Hike sought for emission-permit fees

While refineries, paper mills and steel blast furnaces might seem like obvious air polluters, newer technologies and processes are upping the ante as Pennsylvania works to comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

The advent of many smaller sources of air pollution – like the infrastructure associated with fracking and natural gas production – has aggravated air quality problems even as staff and funding have declined for the state Department of Environmental Protection air-quality regulators, said Alex Bomstein, an attorney and spokesman for Clean Air Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group in Philadelphia.

Clean Air – along with Earthjustice, Breathe Project and PennEnvironmental Research & Policy Center – is urging Pennsylvania regulators to fill vacant positions and increase air quality permit fees.

Bomstein said years of underfunding and staffing cuts meant DEP’s Air Quality Program is “poised to go broke” within a few years.

The Department of Environmental Protection has cut 99 positions from its air program since 2000, according to a report by the agency. But the agency is seeking to boost the program’s income by about $12.7 million per year through a range of measures.

The measures must be approved by the state’s Environmental Quality Board.

The DEP proposal includes raising about $5 million through new maintenance fees, among other steps, according to a 20-18 report by the agency.

Kevin Sunday, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in Harrisburg, does not believe the agency needs more revenue.

He said the department’s budget has risen from an inflation-adjusted $678 million in 2011 to roughly $725 million for 2018-2019, though, he noted: “Federal funding levels as a share of the agency’s budget have declined since 2011.”

Sunday said facilities that fall under Title V of the Clean Air Act – the section requiring larger emitters to pay for annual permits – include power plants, steel mills, paper mills and other manufacturers.

“Generally speaking a major source is something producing 100 tons of one kind or another of a regulated pollutant: nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, lead, particulate matter,” Sunday said.

He said the air quality issue is complicated.

Total emissions from business and industry are down 88 percent since 1990 for Title V-regulated pollutants. The reduction is partially due to tighter regulation, more competition, and decreasing costs of gas and renewable energy sources, Sunday said.

Higher fees could pose a burden to business growth in Pennsylvania, he added.

Bomstein agreed that overall emissions are down since 1990. But emissions from new sources are rising.

“In the past few years, levels are up again because of the fracking industry and natural gas infrastructure. There are many more sites to be monitored with far fewer staff,” he said.

In its request for higher percent fees, the DEP said it faced a budgetary shortfall of more than $7 million in its clean air fund for fiscal year 2016-2017, the last for which data was given.

But it also noted that emissions covered by permits also have fallen, from more than 286,000 tons in 2000 to about 157,000 tons in 2017.