Some of the biggest polluters in Utah the five refineries clustered at the Salt Lake-Davis County line have been allowed to operate for years without a basic permit required under the Clean Air Act.
In fact, these so-called "Title V" permits haven't been in place for nearly two decades. The reason? The state Division of Air Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been engaged in a bureaucratic quarrel since 1994 that has left the permits for the refineries and four other facilities on hold.
But environmental groups say they are shocked that such a basic pollution-policing tool hasn't been applied to some of the biggest emission sources for a part of the state that struggles to meet air-quality standards. They accuse state and federal regulators of falling down on the job, robbing the public of a valuable information tool for understanding their air quality.
Joro Walker, an attorney for Western Resources Advocates, already embroiled in lawsuits over Salt Lake-area refinery pollution, said the missing permits undercut the state's assertion that it already has done all it can to cut pollution by big industrial sources.
"The state has to go after everything it can to secure our health," she said, pointing to plans for reducing dust and wintertime smog, "and they haven't done that."
"It's Utah [regulators] dropping the ball," added Jeremy Nichols, of the Colorado-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians. "And it's another example of Utah putting polluters first ... a slap in the face of the public."
Congress added Title V permits to the Clean Air Act in 1990, when it updated the nation's overarching air-pollution law. The idea was to have big polluters, especially power plants and refineries, consolidate the terms and conditions of their air-pollution permits.
It is a kind of a nutshell summary of the jumble of air-quality regulations pertaining to each operation, along with the equipment deployed to comply with them for the polluters themselves, their regulators and the public something like the Cliffs Notes digest of Shakespeare's Hamlet that harried college students use to pass a final, only this one simplifies mind-numbing engineering and regulatory garble instead of a centuries-old identity crisis.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the facilities that don't have Title V permits actually face and comply with all the necessary regulations that limit their pollution, and they even pay the fees associated with the Title V program. He described the Title V permits as a kind of formality, one that does not have any real impact on controlling pollution.
He added that air pollution has declined at the refineries, thanks to compliance with other air regulations and consent orders. It's just that "conflicts" between the regulations in an umbrella law, for "state implementation plans," have led to a stalemate between state and federal regulators over Title V for the time being.
"The only reason we haven't" completed the permits, he said, "is because of EPA's inaction."
The EPA's Denver regional office, which oversees implementation of the Clean Air Act in Utah, echoes Bird's view that no harm is done by not having Title V permits. EPA regional spokesman Rich Mylott said the agency knows about the stalled permits and has discussed the issue with "our partners at Utah DEQ."
"While EPA encourages states to issue these permits in a timely manner, it is worth noting that the purpose of Title V permits is to consolidate rules, standards, and construction permits that already apply to sources, like refineries, into one operating permit," he said. "Title V permits do not generally impose any controls or limits that a facility is not already responsible for complying with."
Frank O'Donnell sees it differently. Director of the national advocacy group, Clean Air Watch, he calls the situation mind-boggling and makes it look as though regulators are "covering" for dirty industries.
"It's disturbing to hear this: Bureaucrats are tussling over bureaucracy while breathers are left breathing dirty air," he said. "Somebody's dropped the ball here."
Meanwhile, regional groups like Walker's and Nichols' are weighing their options.
Utah's five petroleum refineries lack what are called Title V permits that require them to summarize all of their air-pollution limits and how their operations will meet those regulations. They include: Chevron, Tesoro, Silver Eagle, Big West and HollyFrontier. State regulators and the EPA, because of a bureaucratic spat, have also agreed not to seek Title V permits for four other industrial facilities: the Central Valley Water Reclamation plant, Interstate Brick, Hexcel and the LDS Central Heating Plant.