Trains carrying mid-continent crude oil have derailed and exploded. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says human influence is likely the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century. Congress seems to end up in partisan deadlock about every major issue that comes across their desks. In these circumstances, it is no wonder that people are concerned and frustrated.
Clean air is critical to human health. In Northwest Washington, we enjoy some of the best air quality in the nation. Our citizens rightly have no interest in seeing our air quality degraded.
So I was not surprised by the impressive turnout at a recent Northwest Clean Air Agency public hearing related to a Shell refinery permit.
For a draft permit that normally wouldn't have drawn enough interest for a single public hearing request, more than 70 people showed up to tell us that things have to change.
We were encouraged to see that so many people are, like us, intensely interested in air quality. Even better, they made the effort to attend a hearing to get involved.
Yet, as moving and inspiring as some of those comments were, precious few were about the legal purpose of the public hearing: The Shell Puget Sound Refinery draft air operating permit renewal. As a local government agency, we believe strongly in the public process, and we know that public input can contribute to better permits.
You, the public, told us that you're concerned and paying attention, and that you intend to continue paying attention to the work we do. We're hoping that by discussing some of the issues and concerns raised at the Shell public hearing, and providing some information about what an air operating permit does and doesn't do, we'll help you in your review of another air operating permit, which we're working on modifying: the draft BP Cherry Point air operating permit. This draft BP permit modification is open for public comment until June 5, 2014.
We don't regulate trains:
The Northwest Clean Air Agency regulates stationary sources of air pollution - not cars, ships, trucks or trains. At a facility such as a refinery, our agency has regulatory authority over every stationary source of air pollution. So at the point that a ship or train is offloading crude, we'll look at emissions from the offloading process. If a proposed project requires changes to other parts of the refining process, we'll evaluate those emissions, too.
Air operating permits don't change emission limits:
The purpose of the air operating permit is to bring existing regulations, requirements and documents under one roof, so to speak. Imagine taking individual legal documents and putting them into one binder.
Air operating permits can't allow facilities to increase emissions, and they can't require facilities to decrease emissions. Changes to emissions limits are handled under different permits that go through individual public processes.
Greenhouse gases handled separately:
Although greenhouse gas reporting is not a requirement of air operating permits, refineries are required by state rule to report greenhouse gas emissions. The information itself is collected by the state and is accessible to all who are interested.
Violations and the myths around "self-reporting:"
An argument we heard several times during the recent Shell public hearing: Shell's history of violations is evidence that the system is broken.
To us, the enforcement history at a refinery, or any source of air pollution, is evidence that we are doing our jobs, an important part of which is holding people and businesses accountable. We are able to take enforcement action because our specialized engineers write and manage strong permits, and our inspectors work with the engineers to enforce the terms of the permits and other air quality requirements.
We review data from the extensive network of continuous emission monitors that we require refineries to install, and we have ambient air quality monitors throughout our jurisdiction to measure the quality of the air in our communities. The refinery monitors are checked for accuracy by a third-party contractor who reports results to us. We verify that the refinery is performing required monitoring, reporting and recordkeeping.
In addition to all of that, it's a violation of the Clean Air Act if refineries don't report to us when they know a violation has occurred. If they don't, refinery personnel, usually the facility manager, can be convicted of criminal violations of the Clean Air Act and may be subject to fines or even prison. A high-profile recent example of this is the 2011-12 enforcement at the Pelican Refinery in Lake Charles, La.
Tips for public comments:
The most helpful comments on our draft air operating permit will point out if we missed something or people disagree with our interpretation or application of a requirement. Here are some examples of questions you might consider during your review of BP's air operating permit:
- Did we misapply a requirement or improperly say a requirement doesn't apply?
- Is the permit too vague?
- Did we leave out requirements from existing permits?
- Are the monitoring and reporting requirements adequate?
We're excited by this opportunity to increase awareness about who we are and what we do, and we want you to know that we take our jobs seriously because we're dedicated professionals - and because we breathe this air, too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Asmundson is the executive director of the Northwest Clean Air Agency, which works to preserve, protect and enhance air quality in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties. For more information online, go to nwcleanair.org.