Dozens of Portlanders rally for clean air at the state capitol building after delivering a petition to Gov. Kate Brown.

Dozens of Portlanders rally for clean air at the state capitol building after delivering a petition to Gov. Kate Brown.

Cassandra Profita/OPB/EarthFix

A backlog of outdated air pollution permits is endangering public health and frustrating business owners, according to a newly released audit by the Oregon Secretary of State’s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

“Untimely permits, combined with a current backlog of inspections, endanger the state’s air quality and the health of Oregonians,” auditors wrote. “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.”

DEQ issues permits under the Clean Air Act to businesses and municipalities. These permits allow them to emit certain amounts of pollution into the air. A backlog for the approval of these permits forces some businesses to wait before they can operate. It leaves others frustrated by  uncertainty about how strictly they will be regulated. It also prevents state regulators from being fully informed about potential air-quality problems.

“The findings described in this audit report illuminate and validate challenges that the agency has increasingly experienced over the last decade,” DEQ Director Richard Whitman wrote in response to the audit.

Whitman said staff restructuring within DEQ and budget problems have hindered the agency’s ability to clear the backlog. Last year, the legislature denied a proposed fee increase on air polluters that would have helped pay for permit writers. Whitman said the agency is working to implement the audit’s recommendations to fill vacancies, improve inspection tracking and determine appropriate staffing levels for its permit departments. 

DEQ has acknowledged struggles with backlogs in its air and water quality programs for years. The agency’s backlog of outdated water quality permits is the second-longest of any state in the country.

Those stem mostly from budget-related staff cuts and vacancies. Last year, DEQ had 250 fewer employees on the job than it did in 2001.

Some air quality permits in Oregon will carry additional requirements for companies and municipalities to meet. That is a result of DEQ’s updated clean air rules intended to better protect human health.  Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has indicated plans to ease the federal permitting process for businesses.