Audits in the News: Air quality permitting

Audits in the News: Air quality permitting

We here in the audits division are proud that the work we do makes a difference. Our work attracts the attention of the legislature, statewide news sources, and even local media outlets. Local media coverage of our audits is just another way we communicate with the people of Oregon about the work that we’re doing on their behalf to make government better. This is part of an ongoing series of posts rounding up recent instances in which the Oregon Audits Division makes a cameo in the local news.

In our first performance audit released in 2018, auditors examined the air quality permitting process at the Department of Environmental Quality. The team found a significant backlog among permit renewals and identified strategies the agency can use to evaluate staffing and workload, provide better guidance, and reduce the backlog and better safeguard Oregon’s air.

You can read the entire audit here.


The Oregonian/OregonLive – Audit: Oregon regulators face ‘unmanageable workload,’ potentially harming air quality

Read the story here.

“The state employees overseeing Oregon’s air quality program are overworked, understaffed and face “unmanageable workloads” that have led to substantial permit and inspection backlogs, potentially increasing the chances those businesses aren’t complying with the latest pollution laws.

Those are the key takeaways of an audit of the Department of Environmental Quality’s air pollution programs. The Secretary of State’s office audit released Wednesday notes that the agency’s budget, adjusted for inflation, shrank 8 percent since the 2001-03 biennium. Dozens of job vacancies left unfilled means the agency is effectively down 250 employees, or roughly 29 percent of its authorized workforce, during the same period.”


Statesman Journal – DEQ permit and inspection backlog endangers air quality, audit finds

Read the story here.

“Forty-three percent of Oregon’s largest air polluters are operating with expired permits — some as long as five years past due.

That means those businesses aren’t required to meet the most current environmental standards, the Oregon Audits Division said in a report issued Wednesday.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality told auditors it’s behind on inspecting air polluters as well, but can’t quantify the problem because it has no system for tracking inspection due dates.”


Oregon Public Broadcasting – Human Health Put At Risk In Oregon By Air Pollution Permit Backlog: Audit

Read the story here.

“A backlog of outdated air pollution permits is endangering public health and frustrating business owners, according to a newly released audit by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office.

About 40 percent of air quality permits for major industrial sources of pollution are overdue for renewal by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, according to the audit. Oregon is also behind on timely inspections for air quality permits, but it doesn’t know by how much: the agency has no system to track when facilities are due for inspection, according to the audit.”


Portland Tribune – Auditors: DEQ backlogs ‘endanger state’s air quality and health’

Read the story here.

“State auditors say that a backlog in permits and inspections at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality “endanger the state’s air quality and the health of Oregonians.”

The secretary of state’s Audits Division released the audit Wednesday, Jan. 3. The audit is available here.

DEQ is responsible for monitoring and regulating emissions from industrial sources and enforcing violations. The department also oversees land and water quality.”


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Audit Release: DEQ Should Improve the Air Quality Permitting Process to Reduce Its Permit Backlog and Better Safeguard Oregon’s Air

Report Highlights


The Secretary of State’s Audits Division found that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) should evaluate staffing and workloads among air quality permit writers and provide better guidance to both staff and businesses to help reduce the agency’s air quality permit backlog.

Background

This audit reviewed air quality permitting at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Air quality permits regulate the types and amounts of air pollution businesses are allowed to emit, based on federal pollution limits set by the Clean Air Act and state limits established in state laws and DEQ rules.

Audit Purpose

The purpose of this audit was to determine how DEQ could improve its air quality permitting process to better safeguard Oregon’s air quality.

Key Findings

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has a significant backlog in air quality permit renewals. We found that:

  1. 43% (106 out of 246) of DEQ’s largest and most complex federal and state air quality permit renewals are overdue for renewal. Additionally, more than 40% of the most complex permits issued from 2007 to 2017 exceeded timeframes established by DEQ or the Clean Air Act, some by several years.
  2. DEQ struggles to issue timely permits and renewals due to a variety of factors, including competing priorities, vacancies, and position cuts that have created unmanageable workloads. Other factors include inconsistent support and guidance for staff; a lack of clear, accessible guidance for applicants; and increased time for the public engagement process.
  3. Untimely permits, combined with a current backlog of inspections, endanger the state’s air quality and the health of Oregonians. For example, when DEQ does not issue permit renewals on time, businesses may not provide DEQ with data showing they are complying with new or updated rules.

To reach our findings, we conducted interviews, analyzed air permit data, reviewed documents and reported practices, and researched leading practices.

Key Recommendations

Based on our review of leading practices and air quality agencies in other states, the report includes ten recommendations to the Department of Environmental Quality. Recommendations include evaluating permit writer workloads and staffing, clarifying the public engagement process, providing better guidance to permit writers and businesses, and conducting a process improvement effort.

The agency agreed with our findings and recommendations. Its response can be found at the end of the report.

Read the full report here.

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Oregon Smoke Information: Info Share

Hurricane Harvey’s dramatic rain event over the city of Houston has (justifiably) consumed much of the national and local media attention this last week. However, Oregonians may also be noticing the side effects of an event much closer to home; fire season. It’s been a hot, dry summer across Oregon, with little rainfall, and as the summer extends into a possibly hot and dry fall, several large fires have erupted across the state. This not only poses imminent danger to lives and livelihoods for those individuals in the path of the fire, it poses a risk to wildlife and forest ecosystems, shuts down roads and forest trails, worsens air quality, costs millions of dollars to combat every year, and prompts mass evacuations. Here in the Willamette Valley, the air quality has been pretty awful.

City, county, tribal, state and federal agencies have aggregated their data on a blog devoted to keeping Oregonians informed about potential fire and smoke effects to their communities. The blog includes links to all kinds of handy fire-related info generated by separate agencies, as well as tips on how to keep yourself safe and breathing easy during fire season. Check it out here.

Wildfire smoke in Oregon on the last day of August

Additionally, last August we released an audit of the Oregon Department of Forestry that examined the strain of several consecutive severe fire seasons on staffing and fire prevention efforts for the state agency. One of the audit’s findings was the need for more focus on mitigating forest fire risks. Ideally, one of the positive effects of a severe fire season could be a renewed focus by states, counties, cities, and individuals on steps that can be taken to prevent  fire related devastation in the future.

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