While some pollutants must be prohibited entirely due to the dangers they present, others can be permitted in controlled amounts. Consequently, the OEPA issues permits for companies to install, modify and operate equipment that emits certain types of pollutants. The operating permits set the level of pollution that may be emitted and enables the agency to monitor the emissions over time. Installation permits ensure that the equipment is installed or modified correctly.
The permit process and pollution emission reporting are open to public scrutiny, which allows concerned citizens to weigh in on the pollution levels that are ultimately allowed by the OEPA, to object to the issuance of permits and, once permits are issued, to monitor pollution levels and hold the agency accountable for enforcing the terms of the permit.
Affected industries have long complained that the current permit process is overly burdensome and that delays in permit issuance interfere with their operation. In response to these complaints, former OEPA Director Christopher Jones -- he resigned the position effective Jan. 7 -- jump-started an initiative to modify the agency's pollution permit process by convening the Permit Processing Efficiency Committee.
The agency's Web site (www.epa.state.oh.us) describes the committee as "a collaborative effort between Ohio EPA, U.S. EPA and members of several business and trade associations." The size and composition of the committee has varied since Jones established it in 2001, but 14 government workers and 51 industry representatives have served on it since that time. Among the companies represented are AK Steel, American Electric Power, Ashland, FirstEnergy, Georgia-Pacific, Honda of America, the Hoover Company, Marathon Ashland Petroleum, Procter & Gamble, the Scotts Co., the Timken Co.
The committee's January 2002 report indicates that the Ohio Manufacturers Association was a significant driver of the initiative to relax Ohio's pollution permit process.
"Finally, special thanks to the Ohio Manufacturers' Association for taking a leadership role in establishing this committee and helping coordinate committee meetings," the report says.
Environmental groups were invited to participate in the committee but declined due to staffing constraints, according to Joe Koncelik, assistant director of the OEPA.
"We met with some of the environmental groups and asked if they would like to participate," he says. "Many of them said, 'We don't think we're interested in participating to that degree, but once you get down to a (rule change) proposal, can you cue us in?' "
Representatives from two of Ohio's largest environmental advocacy groups, Ohio Citizen Action and the Sierra Club, say neither was invited to sit on the permit processing committee, nor was either aware of the meeting at which the agency offered the invitation. The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) was invited to participate in 2003, two years after the committee was convened and after the committee had already drafted its first proposed rule changes. Jack Shaner, director of public affairs for the OEC, says his group saw little benefit in participating at that late stage.
"The horses were already out of the barn," he says. "We would like to have been invited and had input earlier in the process."
In its latest draft report, issued in August 2004, the permit committee proposed three significant changes to the permit process. First, the committee created a general permit program. Under this program, which has already been implemented, certain dry cleaners and boiler operators can sidestep the individual permit application and monitoring process by choosing to be covered by a model permit created specifically for those facilities.
The second change proposed by the committee is to add several facilities to the list of those that receive "permits by rule." This program allows companies in certain industries to receive permits to emit pollution as long as they meet certain requirements and agree to follow certain rules, which vary by industry but which generally include record-keeping requirements and emission limitations. Under current rules, only five facilities can obtain permits by rule: emergency generators, firefighting water pumps and air compressors, certain resin facilities, stone and clay crushing plants and soil-vapor and soil-liquid extraction remediation facilities. The proposed rules would add certain auto body refinishing facilities, two types of gasoline dispensing stations, certain boilers and heaters and small- and medium-sized printing plants.
While the OEPA has the right to review the pollution emission records kept by companies with general permits and permits by rule, these are essentially self-policing programs. The agency isn't required to regularly review the activities of the facilities and records aren't available to the public, as they are under the individual permit programs.
The committee also created an emission threshold exemption rule, which would exempt from all permit programs any facility that emits less than the threshold amounts of pollution listed in the rules created by the committee. Each facility must maintain records to demonstrate that they are not exceeding the thresholds, but those records must only be available for review. They aren't submitted regularly to the OEPA, there are no agency rules that mandate regular review of those records and they aren't available for public inspection.
All of these proposed changes are merely procedural, Koncelik says.
"We do not believe there will be any increase in emissions," he says. "We're talking about the same standards. (The difference) is just where you find those standards."
However, the revisions clearly remove public oversight from the process and depend heavily on self-policing and self-reporting. Cutting unnecessary red tape is good, but Ohio's current permit process is necessary for the health of all Ohioans.