If you’ve applied for and received your air permit, congratulations! You’re tackled one of the thornier issues of operating a facility — but your work’s not over yet.
Let’s start with the basics. An air permit is a legal document that authorizes the holder to operate and/or build a specific piece of equipment that emits air that might possibly contain pollutants. Some such equipment might be exempt, but the majority of machinery that creates air emissions will need an air permit. That pesky — but necessary — little document requires the holder to meet any and all requirements it details.
If you look at the face of the document, you’ll see specific conditions related to the piece of equipment for which the permit was issued. When you first get your permit, you need to review these conditions carefully, because they cannot easily be changed just because you can’t meet the requirements. If you see a problem (we’ll give you some examples in a minute), do not accept the permit; instead, request that changes be made to the permit before you start construction.
If the conditions have any of the below problems, you need to address them immediately, because those problems will only compound as time passes. No one wants to run into legal issues or be hit with exorbitant fees simply because they didn’t thoroughly review their air permit’s conditions.
With all that in mind, here are some of the more common problems we’ve encountered with air permits.
1. Permit Conditions
This is probably the most common problem we’ve come across, and it comes in a variety of flavors: inappropriate conditions, typos, and even overly broad wording. An example of that last point is a permit that states an emission limit without mentioning a specific way to calculate the emissions. In that case, the final tally could be left up to interpretation, since there can be multiple ways to calculate emissions from a piece of equipment. And when it’s left to interpretation, there’s potentially a million different ways to interpret the conditions on the face of the permit. So make sure the calculations methods and assumptions are explicitly stated.
Inappropriate permit conditions can also cause unnecessary headaches. Here in Southern California, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) has what’s called RECLAIM, a NOx-and-SOx cap-and-trade program. If your facility is part of the RECLAIM program, then it doesn’t have to meet some of the AQMD’s NOx and SOx requirements stated in other parts of the AQMD’s rules. So in this case, an inappropriate permit condition would be a requirement for which a RECLAIM facility is actually exempt.
Permit conditions can also be inconsistent. For example, the permit might state a more-frequent source-testing schedule than a regulation requires. If you find yourself in such a situation, we recommend that you follow the more stringent of the two requirements. (That’s just a general rule of thumb — we don’t have the last say here.) Talk it over with your management staff and decide how risk-averse your facility wants to be, then see if you can get buy-in from an inspector on how to proceed. Depending on your company’s risk tolerance, you may want to wait for written approval from the inspector before proceeding with an any inconsistent permit conditions.
But when faced with inconsistent permit conditions, the best solution of all is to get the condition changed. This requires thoroughly reviewing the permit upon receipt, but it could save you a world of trouble down the road.
Another tip is to determine the origin of each permit condition so that you can review both the permit and the rule for consistency. For example, a Title V permit has very specific conditions that detail how they relate to a specific rule, but it’s your job to make sure that the permit condition and rule actually jive.
Then there’s human error. It’s not uncommon to get an air permit with typos or incorrect information, such as the wrong model number for a piece of equipment or incorrect formulas.
Therefore, when you first receive your permit, double check any and all conditions for typos, inconsistencies, and unclear language, so you don’t find yourself with a heap of problems down the road. Look at your permit through the eyes of the inspector (which means to read the permit literally). Remove or clarify all areas of ambiguity and make broad permit conditions as specific as possible so there’s no room for interpretation. When going through the permitting process, you can ask for a draft permit to be sure that you are going to be okay with the conditions before the final version gets issued. That way when you get the final permit, the conditions will be clear and accurate as possible. And keep your permits somewhere safe so they remain legible and presentable when an inspector asks for them.
2. Incorrect Equipment Descriptions
This is closely related to the first point, but it’s so common and important that it merits highlighting. Not only could the make and model of the equipment be incorrect, but so could the equipment rating. For example, your permit might say that the engine rating is 525 brake horsepower (bhp) when it’s actually 552 bhp. In this case, an inspector could be lead to believe you installed a larger engine than you were permitted for (ratings that are higher than what is noted on the permit imply more emissions that you are allowed to emit which could mean a more serious violation). So double-check those equipment descriptions!
3. Meeting requirements
As mentioned above, equipment must be operated in accordance with the information used when applying for the air permit as well as the requirements of the permit itself. Any deviations and you’re going to find yourself in hot water, which could require you to get a request for a variance from the AQMD. Even if the permit condition is not feasible, you might find yourself in noncompliance, which can get costly (not to mention painful). Therefore, we can’t emphasize the importance of being able to meet the conditions that are imposed on the face of your permit.
4. Multiple Permits
Now we’re getting into some of the thorniest territory yet. Certain types of equipment might require two separate permits, such as an air permit from the AQMD and a license from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Or an AQMD permit as well as the need to comply with other requirements like National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 110 (for emergency generators). In such cases, it’s not uncommon to find the conditions of the two permits or standard to conflict with one another. Even if you’re in compliance with one permit, you might be noncompliant with the other. Therefore, it’s best to take all the permits for a single piece of equipment and review all the conditions together, then base your operating parameters on the most stringent condition.
5. Unpermitted Equipment
If you’re monitoring your facility and its permits regularly, you can avoid the unpleasant experience of an inspector finding equipment that hasn’t been permitted. If such a scenario arises, you may as well hand yourself a notice to comply or even a notice of violation. We’ve actually seen cases of large facilities with equipment that has been in operation for 10 years — without a permit. No joke.
It’s not merely an oversight that can cause equipment to go unpermitted. Sometimes it’s a lack of understanding the regulations. For example, we’ve seen cases where construction was started and equipment ordered but no permits were applied for, simply because the team thought it wasn’t needed until an AQMD inspector showed up asking for one. Therefore, be sure that everyone involved (especially the environmental compliance folks) knows when any equipment is purchased — or even modified — so that any appropriate permits are applied for. Sometimes, a permit won’t be needed — and that’s okay. What’s important is that the analysis was done beforehand and the outcome documented in a file.
6. Process Changes
You have equipment. It’s properly permitted. Now you want to make a process change. You might assume that the permit will still be valid after the change is made, but that’s not always the case. For this reason, you should review and assess any process change (a management of change process) to determine whether a modification on any or all permits is required.
Of course, there are many other problems you can run into with an air permit, but those are six we see most often. If you have ongoing problems or noncompliance issues, you risk receiving a violation. Depending on your type of facility, you could also face civil or criminal suits, not to mention the bad press and costs associated with resolving the problem. Compliance problems are not only easier to fix when you catch them early on, they’re also less expensive. So be sure to consistently track and monitor performance against the permit conditions.
If you keep your permit clean and accurate, audit frequently, and manage any process changes accordingly, you’ll be well on your way to reducing the risk of noncompliance and violations.