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.
“Untimely permits, combined with a current backlog of inspections, endanger the state's air quality and the health of Oregonians,” the auditors wrote in their report.
In a written response, DEQ Director Richard Whitman said the problems stem in part from funding declines across the department.
DEQ's overall budget of $379 million for the 2017-19 biennium is an 8 percent decline, adjusted for inflation, since 2001-03, auditors noted. Budgeted positions have dropped 16 percent over the same time period, from 866 to 724.
Auditors also said workloads in the air quality program have increased because of the Governor's Cleaner Air Oregon initiative, which will impose new regulations on polluters, and because of air quality emergencies such as last summer's wildfires.
The audit identified a number of other problems:
- Compared with other states, DEQ does a poor job of training and supporting permit writers. For example, Oregon's air quality permit writers' manual hasn't been updated since originally was issued in 1993. “Permit writers we spoke with did not know it existed, or consider it too outdated to be of any use,” the auditors wrote.
- The air quality program has been slow to fill vacancies. In August 2017, a quarter of the 28 budgeted permit writing positions were vacant. Workload for those positions was divided among remaining permit writers.
- In the Northwest Region, which includes Portland, permit writers failed to regulate about 150 auto body repair facilities that use certain coatings. DEQ employees told auditors previous management did not make that a priority due to workloads.
- Most of the recommendations from a 2012 process improvement effort still have not been implemented.
- There is a lack of guidance for applicants, meaning many applications are incomplete and require more staff time.
- The backlogs and regulatory uncertainty could deter companies from moving to Oregon, auditors said.
“Some business leaders and permit holders expressed frustration and decreasing confidence in DEQ's ability to effectively manage the permit program,” they wrote.
In his response, Whitman said the department already has begun working on the problems:
DEQ will hire agency leads for its water, air and land quality programs, Whitman said. All three programs will develop annual permitting and inspection plans.
By July 1, 2018, it will fill all seven vacant air quality permit writer positions, will update its web site to make the permit application process easier, and will ensure that auto body shops in the Northwest Region are properly permitted.
And DEQ will develop a plan to fully fund its permitting and inspection work for the Legislature to consider in 2019.
“These changes will put us in the best possible position to protect Oregonians and their environment,” Whitman said in a news release. “While, ultimately, we will need Oregon's legislature to decide what funding is appropriate for clean air and clean water, we understand that we must first demonstrate that we have done everything possible with existing resources.”
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