It’s natural to think of the air permitting process as adversarial. Businesses need permits to operate their businesses and demonstrate compliance with regulations. Regulators are the gatekeepers for those permits.

That doesn’t necessarily make them the opposition.

Particularly in highly regulated areas like California, obtaining an air permit can be an intensive and relatively expensive process. Federal and state agencies — like the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board — set the agenda in terms of emission standards, and 35 local air pollution control districts in California then play a major role in regulate emissions within their regions by setting up local rules and developing air quality management plan for their respective jurisdictions.

Few people realize those districts can be beneficial partners in maintaining the compliance that keeps facilities operating. Collaborating with regulators before, during and after the permitting process is a great way to make sure the permit meets operational needs and that expectations are clear on all sides.

There are two aspects to this approach. First is a thorough understanding of the basis and history behind the rules and regulations. Second comes working with the district staff to find reasonable conditions that meet the regulatory objective while offering greater flexibility to the operators to achieve their business goals.

Behind the Scenes

It’s one thing — and arguably still the most important thing — to know what any given rule requires. But that knowledge is merely the baseline. Understanding how the rule was developed can provide greater insight into what it was designed to achieve and how its conclusions were reached.

By reviewing district policy statements and internal memoranda in public records, you begin to recognize the underlying focus behind standard policies. Those insights can help you better understand the selected permitting criteria and the drivers behind district policy.

For example, consider a policy that requires monitoring emissions daily. If your facility is not in continuous operation, that single monitoring intensity might not make much sense. What if the permit condition instead calls for “monitoring emissions once every full operational day”? I have walked through client challenges with permitting authorities and worked with regulatory agencies to obtain a broader condition in the permit language. If we can agree to achieve the same objective but in a way that isn’t one-size-fits-all, the facility owner retains greater flexibility to operate its equipment.

Constructive Collaboration

That tees up the second aspect of this approach: actually talking with agency personnel. The people working at the regulatory agencies and districts know the rules they are expected to enforce. They likely don’t know your company culture or facility’s challenges — they only know what’s in your permit application.

In the quest for reasonable accommodations, it makes sense to meet with them. You can explain how your facility and operations work, and discuss how that aligns with the rules in question. If you’ve done the background research on the context of the rules, you can use that to clarify some of the permit conditions and maximize your operational flexibility within regulatory standards. That flexibility saves money while reducing compliance risks over the life cycle of the equipment.

In my experience, when you call the typically well-staffed office of an air pollution control district in California, their internal policy requires them to try to respond within 24 hours. Their expectation is to help both businesses and communities, seeing that the environment is properly screened and the economy can thrive.

The reality is that very few in the industry actually talk to them. That’s a missed opportunity, because it’s a simple and personal way to help yourself and your clients.

 

There are permitting techniques that can speed the air permitting process and improve operational flexibility. PSD netting is one such application that can help simplify the process when modifying facilities.

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Sameer Shah is an environmental project manager for Burns & McDonnell in California. He has more than a decade of experience in environmental engineering, air quality permitting and compliance, remediation, and process optimization.