In compliance with the EPA’s Clean Air Act any facility that emits air pollutants above specified levels must obtain an air quality permit. Permits can be general or individualized and specify pollutant limits, how facilities must operate equipment to control pollution, and how to monitor and report emissions.
Compliance with ever-evolving state and federal regulations can create a complex air permitting path for many companies. This podcast features our air permitting experts, Laramie Heuser, PE, and Brent Blanchard, sharing details to help you understand who needs an air permit, the different variations, the permit process, what to do if you’re not in compliance, plus a preview of future of air permitting.
Jeff Walters (00:19)
Today I have Laramie and Brent with us. They are two professionals here at Snyder and Associates who work with different types of air permitting. It’s something that a lot of our clients are needing on a regular basis for various types of projects. And so we’re going to dive into that and these two experts are going to explain the process of air permitting, the types of permits and why it’s important to obtain them.
So with that, let’s get started on our discussion. On a typical project, Laramie and Brent who usually needs air permits and you know, what types of projects generally need air permit?
Overview of Types of Air Permits
Brent Blanchard (01:01)
Really any business or industry, any facility that is going to put in a process or a piece of equipment that is going to emit any of the regulated pollutants or near toxic into the ambient air needs to get a construction permit it would be from the Iowa DNR, except for in Polk and Linn County, which have their own programs. There’s really two types of permits, the construction permit, which we’ve been talking about, and on other end there’s an operating permit that you must obtain if you’re a major source in the state of Iowa, or if you’re in Polk or Linn County you also have to obtain one if you’re a minor source.
Laramie Heuser (01:44)
Well, I’ll jump in, I guess, the type of customer could be a gas station, it could be a hotel, it could be a hospital. We’ve worked with all kinds of businesses and companies that just need emergency backup power. And I think the derecho showed a lot of people that just because you were okay those other times when you lost power for an hour or two, you might not be okay if you lose power for a couple of days. We’ve definitely seen an uptick in business from banks, assisted living facilities, people who might be okay, like I say, for a couple hours, but once you’re talking about days at a time, then they really run into problems.
Jeff Walters (02:22)
So if we are in need of equipment, that’s going to require permitting, are we going to get both of those permits then in general?
Brent Blanchard (02:31)
It’s going to depend upon the size of the facility. If it’s classified as a major facility, then it’s going to have to get the operating permit, which is also commonly referred to as a Title Five permit. Minor sources in the state of Iowa do not have to, except for in Polk and Lynn county so they would have to obtain both.
Jeff Walters (02:49)
Let’s talk about some of the initials and acronyms within the air permitting world. You know I see them on a fairly regular basis, but even I get kind of confused with what some of those are. You talk about Title Five, MSAT, and some of these other lingos within the air permitting jargon. Can we talk about those a little bit, maybe help me out so I can help others?
Brent Blanchard (03:13)
Sure. Title Five is a federal program that the state is required to comply with. To be subject to these Title Five permits you have to be a major source, which means you have the potential to emit over 100 tons of a single criteria pollutant, or 10 tons of a single toxic pollutant, or twenty-five tons of all your toxics combined. So, it can get confusing when you start talking about major sources, because then you also have the PSD program, which is Prevention of Significant Deterioration. So really, each industry, if they don’t know has to go through this on a case by case basis to make this determination.
Regulations Based on Particulate Matter & Emissions
Jeff Walters (03:59)
Okay. How about the PM 2.5 and that kind of jargon. Is that still something that we’re concerned about in the air permitting world?
Brent Blanchard (04:07)
Yes. PM is particulate matter and then it’s broken down into PM 10 and PM 2.5, which is the regulated part of it. The 10 and the 2.5 correlates to the size of the particle. So a PM 10 particle is one that’s 10 microns or less in size a PM 2.5 particle is one that is 2.5 microns or less in size.
Jeff Walters (04:35)
Okay, and when we started talking about PM 10 and PM 2.5, is that going down all the way to emergency generators?
Brent Blanchard (04:44)
Right. Yeah. The generators have the potential to emit the sulfur oxides, the nitrogen oxides, some VOC’s, volatile organic compounds, and then also the particulates, the PM 10 and the PM 2.5. And, you know, with some of the diesel generators that they can add up to be a significant amount.
Laramie Heuser (05:05)
So I just want to add on there. It really depends on the fuel when we’re talking about emissions, because with diesel you’re going to have some sulfur and you’re going to have some NOx emissions, but with natural gas, you have just a lot more of like CO2 emission. To the point where I recently filled out the forms for two natural gas-powered generators for some banks locally and I had to speak with the people at Polk county just to figure out the best way to do this. Because, generally what we like to do is put operating limits as far as the amount of time these are going to run and we set that at 500 hours annually, which gives the facility a chance to run the generators, exercise them, make sure they’re working properly.
But in doing that, when you run through the calculations, it’ll say what are you putting out for emissions per hour per horsepower? Well, it just so happened that these generators were in a sweet spot where they were putting out too high of emissions on this limited 500-hour annual scale. But, if I switched them over to have no running limits, they were well below what an annual limit would be. So that was very eye-opening for me because I was so used to working with diesel generators that I just assumed the natural gas generators were going to be much cleaner, which in a sense they were. But just because of the size of these, they just happen to be in the narrow line where you’re actually better off saying we might run these things 24/7, 365. And in that case, the DNR was fine with it. But if you set it up to say, we’re only going to run 500 hours annually, the DNR said no because those emissions are too high for that limit. So I just found that to be very interesting and as we’re talking about emissions, that just jumped into my head.
Brent Blanchard (07:05)
To go along with that, a lot of sources take that 500-hour limit because that allows them to be classified as an intermittent source. So then they do not have to go through dispersion modeling. And with the generators that brings you also into a couple of more of the acronyms, you were talking about because they’re subject to what are called the NSPS (New Source Performance Standards) and also the NESHAP’s, the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants. The EPA has developed standards for both diesel and natural gas generators that the owner or the manufacturer have to meet. Those standards are based on the same type of operations that a facility will operate at. So there’s a really hard line to draw to be compliant with those emission standards and have the facility comfortable in the operation of them.
Jeff Walters (07:59)
Okay. So what I’m hearing from both of you two, is when you’re going through the permitting process, there may be some finagling in working of numbers and modeling that depending on how you want to get your project permitted you can do some tweaking here and there to get the appropriate approvals. Does that sound accurate?
Laramie Heuser (08:32)
I have found that an open line of communication with the permitting group is key because they will help you find the best method. So I don’t know if I’d call it finagling, but you’re only given the one set of numbers from the manufacturer, this is what the emissions are and speaking just to generators right now. But like I said, I was able to contact Polk county explaining what was going on and they helped me figure out, oh, okay, well, let’s get the permit this way versus that way. But you also have the option, not in Polk county, but with the DNR to simply register an emission point instead of permitting it. With generators, if they’re less than 400 horsepower you can just register it, which is cheaper and faster and a lot less paperwork.
Project Complexity Determines Timing for Obtaining an Air Permit
Jeff Walters (09:23)
Let’s build on that a little bit and kind of back up, say I’m an industry, I’m a banker, or I need one of these generators and I don’t know exactly what I want, but I know I want emergency backup for whatever reason. Walk me through the process and schedule to obtain a permit here in Iowa.
Laramie Heuser (09:44)
I would say, figure a day of information gathering and form filling, maybe another day of emails back and forth, and then if you don’t have to mail it, obviously, like I said, you can just shoot an email to the facility and say, “Hey, go ahead and go online.” Once the state has it, it’s not very long maybe even a day or two later, I would say the longest might be a week.
Jeff Walters (10:06)
Okay. That’s pretty fast. Yeah.
Brent Blanchard (10:08)
Well, we should specify you know, that’s pretty much for generators, which they’ve done enough of those now that it is kind of cookie cutter. Whereas if it’s a new process or something that’s not as familiar to DNR, you could take probably two to three weeks in order to get that permit back.
Jeff Walters (10:28)
And is that fairly run of the mill permitting? What happens if you’re a major industry or you’re adding on a complex project that may require modeling. What’s that look like?
Brent Blanchard (10:41)
The more complex it is the longer it’s going to take, of course. If the project has to go through modeling, it depends upon is the facility going to submit the model or are they going to ask DNR to run the model? If DNR just has to review the model, it will speed the process of if DNR has to run the model you’re looking at adding several more days to the review time. And if you get into the PSD, the Prevention of Significant Deterioration for the really large projects, there’s a 30 day waiting period for public comment that the facility has to go through and if anybody in the public requests that they have to hold a public meeting, which could also delay it.
Jeff Walters (11:23)
Okay. So after one of our clients has received a permit what are some of the things that we do to help our client with the permitting or post permitting during their operations?
Post-Permitting Operations & Assistance
Laramie Heuser (11:36)
So, the client, as long as they have the documentation showing the permits in place, showing if they’re going to have hours of operation or operating limits, things like that it’s been pretty streamlined once we’ve got the permit in place.
I’d like to think that the client feels comfortable coming to us and saying, “Hey, can you take care of this or find out what we have to do?” because I know sometimes when a facility manager has to call, “the state” they never enjoy those kinds of phone calls. So yeah, maybe just a little bit of handholding after the fact, just to make sure that everything’s going to plan.
Brent Blanchard (12:13)
When you submit the application, there is a check box on one of the forms that ask if the facility wants to review the draft permit prior to issuance. I always recommend that the client check that as yes, and then that way you can see the draft permit ahead of time before it’s issued and work through those issues that Laramie was talking about. Whether or not, limits are required, are they in a format that the facility is already doing? In other words, you know, if there is a requirement that limits the gallons of paint per hour, is the facility monitoring the gallons of paint or are they doing hour meters? So that you can get all those record-keeping requirements lined up ahead of time and try to reduce the burden on the facility to come up with a new accounting system or a new recording system. It really helps.
Compliance in Air Permitting
Jeff Walters (13:04)
Okay. Laramie mentioned a word that I think some of our clients get scared of and that’s compliance. And a few of our clients get really uptight and scared when they heard the term notice of violation because they’re out of compliance or there’s an issue at their facility related to their permit. What have you two done to help clients in that kind of situation when the DNR, or maybe the county will call up the client and say, “Hey, there’s an issue with your operation. You’re going to be out of compliance with your permit, or we’re going to send you an NOV.” What steps do we take to prevent that? Or when it does happen, what do we do for our clients to rectify that problem?
Laramie Heuser (13:47)
Well working with these clients, I want them to feel like if they get a notice of noncompliance that they can call me or reach out to me, send me the letter they got or, you know, explain what’s going on. And, if it’s something simple, let me take a look at it, let me call whoever I need to, and see if we actually have to do anything major. But I agree with what you’re saying about any notice of non-compliance that sounds really bad or any time you hear the word violation, obviously, that’s a bad thing. But a lot of times in my experience, it hasn’t been anything major.
Brent Blanchard (14:24)
Yeah. I mean, the best way to avoid an issue is to go through those construction permits when they get them and sit down with the facility and make sure that they understand, you know, what record keeping, what operating limits they need and maybe help them develop the forms or some type of data recording device, whatever they need. It varies with the industry and how involved they want to be in it but try to develop all those things once you have that construction permit in hand so that they are in compliance, to begin with, and if they fall out of compliance, the best thing to do is contact us and right away and work with them to come up with a strategy to come back into compliance. I mean, the worst thing to do is to try to cover it up because then know that opens up a-whole-nother set of regulations and can get kicked up to the state level or EPA level. It’s best to avoid all that if you can.
Jeff Walters (15:22)
So we’ve talked about construction permits a little bit. Have we really have we dove into some of our operational permit issues and concerns or are we kind of overlapping here a little bit?
Brent Blanchard (15:31)
They do overlap in that your operating permit referred to as the Title Five permit is really a compilation of all the construction permits that have been issued to that facility.
For the and compliance, those that have a Title Five permit have to certify that they are in compliance with their monitoring requirements. If they’re not, they have to submit additional forms stating what units are out of compliance, why they’re out of compliance and when they’ll be back in compliance.
And then once a year, they have to submit an annual compliance statement in which they go through and list every requirement that that facility has in regards to air permitting, and then has to state that either they were in compliance full time or part of the time. If they were out of compliance at any time, they have to submit the forms on which emission units were out of compliance, why they were out of compliance, how long they were out of compliance and if they’re still out of compliance when there’ll be back into compliance.
Jeff Walters (16:31)
If a facility is out of compliance are the counties or DNR or EPA requiring the facility to shut their operations down at any time?
Brent Blanchard (16:42)
That would be very rare. Normally it depends upon the type of violation that it is. If it’s an emission violation or is it record keeping violations? If it’s a record keeping or you violate your operating limits without exceeding the emission limit, then you can usually get by with a revised construction permit or some type of compliance plan that you can submit. It’ll have benchmarks in there on what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it, and how long it would take you to come back into compliance.
Prominent Issues found in Air Permitting
Jeff Walters (17:15)
Okay. So, what are some of the biggest issues that we have with construction permitting these days?
Brent Blanchard (17:23)
Yeah. I’d say probably the biggest frustration right now not only for the client, but also for DNR is the PM 2.5 dispersion modeling because there’s such a narrow window between the background levels and the national ambient air quality standard, that it’s really hard to get your process to fall into that range. So, you end up with a lot more facilities having to model for 2.5. If they exceed that limit it used to be, you could raise the stack and other things like that, which were fairly simple fixes that really don’t work for 2.5. You still end up with these hot spots and it’s frustrating for the client and also for DNR. I mean, the DNR can’t issue the permit, if it’s going to violate the standard and in most cases, they really help you come up with the different scenarios to try to get it to pass.
That is one of the biggest issues right now.
Jeff Walters: (18:23)
I recall several years ago we had a client that was frustrated with DNR because they didn’t have rules, but they had guidance. Is that still the case today?
Brent Blanchard (18:35)
Yeah, that really doesn’t seem to be as major concern as what it was. There are still guidelines out there and it stems more from EPA than it does the DNR. EPA is the one that comes out with the guidance and then DNR will have to adopt it, and they really can’t adopt guidance, they need a firm rule in order for the DNR to adopt it and then to enforce it.
Future of Air Permitting
Jeff Walters (18:56)
What are some of the foreseeable changes you anticipate in the air permitting realm in the next six months, a year, three years, five years?
Brent Blanchard (19:05)
At the state level, I would anticipate a bigger push to put more things online. Like Laramie was talking about their easy air system, right now that is an option. I would see them trying to make that mandatory like they did the Title Five permitting. And then at the federal level, they’re also pushing more towards paperless accounting systems. And I would anticipate with the new administration that we have that the greenhouse gases will become a bigger issue and I could see a big push to make those a regulated pollutant.
Laramie Heuser (19:41)
Yeah, I would have to agree, I mean as far as the greenhouse gases, I feel like that is true, that we’re going to be seeing more regulation of it, but I also feel like as we push toward less fossil fuel usage, it would just kind of happen on its own. You know, the more solar power, hydro power, wind power we’re going to see fewer and fewer emission points just in general. So, I think seeing more strict regulations at first is going to seem a lot different, but then down the line you’ll think, well, that’s crazy because now we don’t even need those anymore.
Jeff Walters (20:14)
Who do you think will be the next client or industry that will start dipping their toes in the air permitting world? We discussed that a little bit earlier about post derecho and various entities wanting to have emergency generator backup. What else do you see out in the future?
Brent Blanchard (20:34)
What I see would be a continuing growth in the data centers like Facebook here in Altoona. They actually have a hundred diesel backup generators and with Amazon moving in and Microsoft in the south side of Des Moines and Dallas county. Really, it’s because here in Iowa we have fairly cheap water supply, which is major for them, for the cooling part of it, we have stable and fairly cheap electricity. Also, we do not have earthquakes so I could see more of those type of facilities moving into the area.
But also, I’d probably just want to remind the clients that, you know, the construction permit is actually a pre-construction requirement, and you have to have that permit in hand before you initiate construction or begin operating the equipment. You know that those facilities trying to get the jump on that is where you see, you know, probably the greatest number of NOV issues.
Jeff Walters (21:34)
Okay. Well, Laramie and Brent, I thank you for your time today talking about the world of air permitting. I learned quite a bit today, and I appreciate the time. Thank you.