Air pollution is a serious problem throughout the country and in Georgia, in both urban and rural areas.
Harmful air emissions are causing climate change on a global scale, and on a local scale can reduce visibility, cause unsightly brown clouds of haze, and create noxious odors. Air pollution is also linked to a host of human health problems, including asthma, lung disease, heart disease, strokes, and some cancers.
Climate change, which is caused by greenhouse gases emitted from power plants, factories, cars, trucks, airplanes, and landfills in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, is leading to higher temperatures, severe weather extremes, sea level rise, and species extinction. The ripple effects include higher electricity bills and flooding, particularly in coastal communities.
Historically, states have largely been on their own in terms of mandating or encouraging renewable energy sources – wind, solar, and hydroelectricity – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. In Georgia, the Public Service Commission, consisting of five members elected state-wide, has the authority to compel utilities to invest in more renewable energy sources. One result has been increased solar investments. But renewables still make up only a small percent of the state’s energy mix.
Fortunately, in recent years carbon emissions in Georgia have plummeted.
That’s due to a combination of low natural gas prices, increased solar energy investment driven by lowered costs, and phaseouts of coal plants driven by increasingly costly environmental controls. Between 2011 and 2020, Georgia Power, the state’s largest utility, retired or converted to natural gas nearly two dozen coal-fired power units. Carbon dioxide emissions from coal dropped by more than half during that time.
Georgia Power’s shift away from coal has benefited the environment in other ways as well; the amount of mercury and other pollutants emitted from its power plants have decreased by more than 90 percent since 1990.
But climate change remains the number one environmental threat on a global scale, and one that will burden low-wealth communities the most.
To encourage Georgia to continue to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, you can contact your federal representatives in Congress, as well as commissioners on the Georgia Public Service Commission, and Georgia state legislators (see Appendix B for contact information). You can demand a state and federal energy policy that ensures affordable, clean energy is available for everyone.
This chapter will focus on localized air pollution impacts. There are two primary categories of air pollution sources: mobile sources (e.g., vehicles, airplanes, and trains) and stationary sources (e.g., factories, power plants, and landfills). This chapter is devoted to stationary sources, and future editions of this Green Book may address mobile sources. This chapter provides an introduction to the Clean Air Act; an explanation of how facility permits regulate air pollution; and an overview of ways you can use permits to address and prevent air pollution from stationary sources.
Clean Air Act
The chief federal law that regulates air pollution is the Clean Air Act (CAA). The CAA was originally enacted in 1970 but has been amended several times to add new programs or refine existing ones.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the federal agency charged with implementing and overseeing enforcement of the Act. However, the CAA also requires states to participate in its implementation and enforcement. In Georgia, the Air Protection Branch of the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (EPD) is the primary entity involved in permitting and enforcement.
The CAA has two main programs for addressing air pollution, depending on the pollutants involved:
(1) The National Ambient Air Quality Standards
(2) The National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants
National Ambient Air Quality Standards
First, the CAA calls for the EPA to set standards, called the “national ambient air quality standards” (NAAQS), for the maximum “safe” levels of certain common pollutants known as “criteria pollutants.”
These standards should be based on the latest science and public health data, and some pollutant limits have been lowered over time based on what we know about the effects of pollution on our health.
To date, the EPA has established six NAAQS for:
Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
Particulate matter (PM)
Carbon monoxide (CO)
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
In general, ozone is not emitted directly by air pollution sources, but is formed by chemical reactions caused by the sun’s heat between volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx); emissions of these “precursor” pollutants are therefore regulated to prevent excessive ozone concentrations.
A defined geographic area that achieves the NAAQS for a pollutant is said to be an “attainment area” for that pollutant. An area that does not meet the standard considered “safe” for human health is said to be a “nonattainment area.”
An area may be in attainment for one criteria pollutant and in nonattainment for another. The EPA makes the final decision on which areas to designate as not attaining a given standard and establishes deadlines by which those areas must achieve air quality that satisfies the minimum standards.
Once NAAQS are set, the CAA requires states to develop strategies to meet and enforce these health-based standards. Under Section 110 of the CAA, each state must submit a State Implementation Plan (SIP) that demonstrates how the state will achieve or maintain air quality that satisfies the standards. The SIPs are primarily made up of state regulations but must be approved by the EPA. Once approved, the SIP becomes federally enforceable by the EPA.
Georgia met the 1997 and 2008 federal ozone standards largely by requiring emission reductions at Georgia Power’s coal-fired power plants, as well as reducing emissions from cars and trucks in metro Atlanta through emissions testing. The state also required the metro Atlanta region to become an early adopter of cleaner gasoline, ahead of the national timeline.
Since 1997, Georgia’s nonattainment area has decreased from 20 counties to 7, with Bartow, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Henry counties continuing to fail the 2015 federal ozone standard. You can find reports on area attainment status in Georgia at EPD’s Air Protection Branch webpage.
National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants
The second main program for addressing air pollution under the Clean Air Act is called the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants(NESHAP).
Under NESHAP, less prevalent but very dangerous pollutants known as hazardous air pollutants(HAPs) are regulated. The EPA has specifically identified 188 of these HAPs that are known or suspected to cause cancer, birth defects, and other serious diseases. Anyone may petition the EPA to add or delete a substance from the HAP list. The EPA has 18 months to grant or deny the petition.
HAPS are primarily regulated by emission limits based on the level of pollution control already achieved using “Maximum Achievable Control Technology” (MACT). EPA must identify categories of facilities that release any of the 188 HAPs in significant quantities and establish MACT standards for the facilities in each category.
MACT standards are the emission limits imposed based on what’s achievable by the best performing sources in any given category. Unlike criteria pollutants, HAPs are regulated not based upon their concentration in the environment but solely upon the amounts emitted by individual facilities.
How Permits Regulate Air Pollution
The CAA uses several strategies or programs to meet NAAQS and HAPs requirements. Among these requirements, certain facilities must obtain permits for operation if they meet specific criteria. In general, state environmental agencies (in Georgia, the Environmental Protection Division) issue these permits and are called “permitting authorities.”
This section focuses on two important permits — Construction Permits and Title V Permits — for regulating air pollution under the CAA. This section provides information about Construction Permits and Title V Permits, an explanation of the permitting processes for each, and a brief overview of other CAA permits you may encounter.
The CAA requires all new “major stationary sources” of any of the criteria pollutants to get state-issued Construction Permits before commencing construction.
It also requires any so-called “modifications” of existing sources to obtain Construction Permits if they may result in significant increases in pollution. Whether a modification results in a significant increase is an extremely complicated analysis; you should consult an expert if you suspect a modification may trigger the Construction Permit requirement. The process leading to the issuance of a Construction Permit is also known as “New Source Review” (NSR) or “preconstruction review.”
What constitutes a “major source” depends on whether the area in which the facility is sited is in “attainment” or “nonattainment” for a given pollutant and is also based on whether the facility has the “potential to emit” above a threshold amount of a given pollutant.
Similarly, the requirements that must be met to get a Construction Permit depend on whether a facility is in an attainment or nonattainment area. Keep in mind that because an area may be nonattainment for some pollutants and attainment for others, the thresholds and permit requirements may vary for different pollutants from the same source.
In attainment areas, there are two thresholds for a facility to be considered a major source:
If the facility is in one of 28 listed source categories (types of facilities), it is a major source if it may potentially emit 100 tons per year (tpy) or more of any regulated pollutant.
If it is not one of those 28 types, it is a major source if it may potentially emit 250 tpy or more.
In nonattainment areas, the thresholds are lower and depend on the particular pollutant and the severity of the problem. The highest thresholds for nonattainment areas are 100 tpy, and they step down to as low as 10 tpy.
Construction Permit Requirements
Requirements for a Construction Permit differ depending on whether the facility is located in an attainment area or a nonattainment area.
Requirements for Facilities in Attainment Areas
In attainment areas, Construction Permits are also known as Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) Permits. As the name suggests, the purpose of this permitting program is to prevent the air quality of the area from becoming significantly worse.
To obtain a PSD Permit, a proposed new major source or modification must demonstrate that it will use “Best Available Control Technology” (BACT) to control each criteria pollutant for which it is a major source.
BACT is determined on a case-by-case basis for each source, and incorporates a balancing approach that includes air pollution, environmental, and economic considerations. The BACT analysis is also informed by what pollution control equipment is being used at other similar facilities around the country.
When applying for a PSD Permit, a proposed facility must set an emissions limit for each of the criteria pollutants and then justify why that limitation represents BACT.
A proposed new or modified facility must also perform an air quality impacts analysis to obtain a PSD Permit. Under the CAA, each attainment area is given an allowable pollution increase, or “increment.” The air quality impacts analysis must show that the pollution emitted by the facility will not take up too much of the remaining increment for the area.
Requirements for Facilities in Nonattainment Areas
As in attainment areas, any new major source or modification in a nonattainment area must install pollution control technology for criteria pollutants for which it is a major source.
However, in nonattainment areas, the standard for judging technology is more stringent and is known as “Lowest Achievable Emissions Rate” (LAER).
The primary difference between BACT and LAER is that under LAER, there is little or no consideration of energy, other environmental, or economic factors — the focus is almost solely on reducing air emissions.
In addition, any new or modified source in a nonattainment area must obtain offsetting emissions reductions from existing sources in the area. The amount of the offset depends on the severity of the problem, but it is always at least as much as the added pollution from the facility.
Facilities Emitting Hazardous Air Pollutants
Any proposed facility that is a major source of HAPs — defined as one with the potential to emit 10 tpy of any HAP or 25 tpy of any combination of HAPs — must obtain a “Notice of MACT Approval,” or finding that it will comply with the appropriate Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) requirements, from the permitting authority before commencing construction.
In Georgia, as in many states, this determination has been folded into the Construction Permit process. Thus, even if a facility is not a major source of a criteria pollutant, it will have to obtain a Construction Permit if it is a major source of HAPs.
In Georgia, ethylene oxide emerged as a controversial HAP in 2019 after Georgia Health News, WebMD and other media outlets reported that the cancer-causing chemical was being emitted at dangerous levels from facilities in south Fulton County, Smyrna, Covington, and Madison. Ethylene oxide, or EtO, is used to sterilize medical equipment as well as manufacture products like antifreeze and detergents. The EPA released a report in 2018 that identified increased cancer risks in about two dozen communities around the country, largely due to exposure to EtO. EtO use was not new; but EPA’s understanding of the cancer risks from EtO had improved. The EPA has committed to requiring more facilities using EtO to provide information about releases of the chemical, and is considering additional regulations. You can find out more about the EPA’s actions to address EtO here.
Title V Permits
The Title V Permitting Program was created by the significant amendments to the CAA in 1990. These amendments called for a program requiring permits for all major sources, and many smaller sources, of air pollution.
The program is commonly referred to as “the Title V program” (pronounced as “the Title Five program”) because the relevant requirements appear in Title V of the CAA (there are eleven “titles” that make up the entirety of the CAA). Title V Permits are also sometimes known as Part 70 Permits because the federal regulations implementing the program appear in Part 70 of the EPA regulations.
The Title V Permit includes federally enforceable requirements that incorporate all federal and state regulations pertaining to a given facility.
After a Title V Permit is issued to a facility, a member of the public who wishes to know which air quality regulations apply to a given facility can simply request to see the facility’s Title V Permit, which is a public document on file at the EPD.
Facilities Subject to Title V Permitting
The Title V program has a broader reach than the Construction Permit program.
First, it applies to existing facilities as well as new or modified facilities. It also applies to a broader range of facilities. All facilities subject to Construction Permit requirements, or that have the potential to emit 100 tpy or more of a criteria pollutant, 10 tpy of any HAP, or 25 tpy of any combination of HAPs, must obtain a Title V Permit.
Likewise, any source, regardless of size, that is covered by other requirements such as New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) or MACT standards must obtain a Title V Permit.
NSPS, which predates the New Source Review rules, set the minimum pollution control requirement for major sources regardless of where they are located. Now largely supplanted by the more stringent BACT/LAER requirements, NSPS is based on the “best system of emission reduction” (BSER) technology for certain source categories, taking into account factors such as cost and technical feasibility.
Title V Permit Contents
A facility’s Title V Permit must include all “applicable requirements” for the facility. This includes any NSR requirements, including BACT or LAER standards; NSPS requirements; MACT requirements; or other requirements imposed by the state’s SIP.
The Title V Permit also includes monitoring, testing, recordkeeping, and reporting requirements to assure that the source complies with emissions standards and other permit requirements. The Title V program requires permit conditions obligating a facility to:
conduct regular monitoring activities such as stack tests, inspections, and measuring raw materials and fuel consumption;
sign an annual “compliance certification” stating whether the facility is in compliance with its permit;
and submit these documents to the permitting authority, where they are made available to the public.
There are stiff penalties for false statements on any of these documents.
In short, the Title V Permit is intended to include all relevant information and requirements, so that it is clear to the source, regulators, and the public what federal and state requirements the source is legally obligated to meet and whether it is meeting them. It provides the roadmap for enforcement of air pollution requirements by the agencies and the public.
Timing and Duration of the Title V Permit
A new facility must apply for a Title V Permit within twelve months after it commences operations. Existing facilities were required to submit their applications within twelve months after the state’s Title V program was approved. In Georgia, this has long since occurred. If a facility has submitted a timely and complete application, it is shielded from any claims based on its failure to have a valid permit.
Title V Permits may have terms of no more than 5 years and must be renewed thereafter, as long as the facility is in operation.
The renewal application reopens all state, federal, and public review requirements, allowing any new requirements applicable to the facility to be incorporated into the new permit.
Title V Permit Amendments
Facilities that have a Title V Permit may amend their permit for several reasons. The type of amendment dictates whether public or EPA review is required.
The simplest type of amendment is an administrative amendment, which is available for such minor items as an ownership or name change of a facility or fixing typographical errors in a permit. This amendment does not trigger EPA or public review.
Slightly more complicated are minor modifications. These are defined in terms of what they are not and are essentially those modifications that will not result in changes in emissions or significant changes in monitoring, reporting, or recordkeeping. These modifications are subject to review by the permitting agency and EPA, but not by the public.
Significant modifications are all other changes to the permit, and they are subject to the full public and EPA review processes.
In addition to these permit modifications, a facility may be able to make an off-permit change to change items that are not addressed or prohibited in the permit. These changes do not trigger EPA or public review.
Finally, a facility may make changes in operations without triggering a permit revision if those changes are not “modifications” as defined in the CAA and will not result in emissions greater than those allowed under the permit.
The Permitting Process: Construction Permits and Title V Permits
Both Construction Permits and Title V Permits are subject to extensive procedural requirements that involve substantial opportunities for public participation. These processes have many similarities but some important differences. The same requirements apply for Title V Permit amendments subject to public review requirements.
For both Construction Permits and Title V Permits, the process begins when the facility owner submits a permit application.
The permitting authority reviews the application, gets any necessary additional information from the applicant, and prepares a “draft permit” containing the relevant requirements.
The agency must publish notice of the draft permit and make it available to the public. The public then has an opportunity to submit written comments and submit oral comments at a public hearing. For more information on how to submit comments, see Submitting Public Comments.
This ends the process for Construction Permits, and the permitting authority can issue a permit at this point if it meets all the requirements of the CAA.
Federal law says a permitting authority must issue or deny a Construction Permit within one year after submission of a complete application. In practice, it often takes longer for these decisions to be made.
Additional Permitting Procedures: Title V Permits Only
For Title V Permits, there are additional procedural requirements.
In addition to the public comment period, the permitting authority must submit the draft permit to the EPA for review. There is no specific time when this submission must occur.
After receiving the proposed permit, the EPA has 45 days to review it and object to its issuance if it will violate any applicable law. If EPA does not object, then the final permit may be issued. If the EPA does object, the permit may not be issued and the permitting authority must either deny it or revise and resubmit it to the EPA within 90 days of the EPA’s rejection notice. If the permitting authority fails to send the permit back in time, it loses control of the permit and the EPA must either deny or rewrite the permit.
If the EPA does not reject a proposed permit, any member of the public who submitted comments during the public comment period may petition the EPA to reject the permit, but only on grounds the person raised during the public comment period. The petition must be submitted within 60 days of the end of the EPA’s 45-day review period.
Filing of the petition does not invalidate an already-issued permit unless the EPA raises an objection in response to the petition. After receiving the petition, the EPA has 60 days to respond to it. If the EPA does not object to the permit in response to the petition, the petitioner has the right to bring a lawsuit against the EPA in the federal Court of Appeals challenging the failure to object.
Federal law requires permitting authorities to take final action — the decision to issue or deny a permit — on each permit application within 18 months of its submittal. As with Construction Permits, however, they have often taken far longer in practice.
Other Permits Regulating Air Pollution
In addition to Construction Permits and Title V Permits, the Air Protection Branch of the EPD issues several other types of air permits. Most of these permits are called “SIP Permits” because they are governed by Georgia’s State Implementation Plan (SIP).
The most significant of these permits is the state “Operating Permit.” This permit, which is not required by federal law, is similar to a Title V Permit in that it combines all of the requirements applicable to a facility.
However, Operating Permits are required for much smaller facilities than Construction or Title V Permits — a few small sources of air pollution sources are exempted, but nearly every industrial facility that does not require a Title V Permit is covered. Facility owners must apply for an Operating Permit within 30 days after commencing operations, and the application is subject to EPA and public review. As might be expected, the requirements for obtaining an Operating Permit are less burdensome than those for a Title V Permit.
Another type of state-issued permit is a “Permit by Rule.” This is a single permit that is issued to cover many similar facilities. The permit itself is subject to public review, but an individual facility’s election to be covered by the Permit by Rule is not.
If a source’s potential to emit would require it to get a Title V Permit, the facility may agree to take federally enforceable limitations to bring its emissions under the Title V threshold. For instance, a source that could emit 101 tpy of nitrogen oxides running year-round might agree to shut down for three weeks every year to bring its emissions below 100 tpy. These federally enforceable agreements are contained in a “Synthetic Minor” permit. In Georgia, this is included in the state Operating Permit and is subject to the same procedural requirements.
How to Use Permits to Your Advantage
Participate in the Public Review and Comment Process
For any permit, it is important to participate in the review and comment process from the beginning. See Submitting Public Comments for more about submitting public comments. If you wait to get involved until after a final permit is issued, you cannot take the EPA to court for failure to object to the permit, and you cannot petition for changes or improvements in the permit.
Once a final permit is issued, the only way to remedy a flaw in the permit is to convince the permitting authority to “reopen” the permit. The permitting authority is unlikely to reopen the permit, absent unusual circumstances, particularly when you had the opportunity to comment on any perceived flaws during the public comment period.
If you miss the public comment period, you will have to wait until the permit is renewed (usually five years) to advocate for improvements.
After a permit has been issued, you have a window of opportunity to challenge it if you believe it contains provisions that violate the Clean Air Act. For more information on this process, see Administrative Appeals in Georgia.
Obtain and Review Permits
Permits are the basis for ensuring that a facility is complying with the requirements of the Clean Air Act.
Thus, the first order of business if you suspect an existing facility in your neighborhood may be emitting too much pollution is to get copies of its permits and supporting documents. In addition to using the online resources listed in Knowing What’s in Your Neighborhood, you can also search for the facility’s air quality (and other) permits on the Georgia EPD Online System, or GEOS. The website contains information on permitting and compliance, including abbreviated permit applications.
GEOS is a good starting place, but not all the available information is posted there. For that, you will need to call or visit the Air Protection Branch of EPD and request to see the entire permitting file for a specific facility. You will have to review the documents in person, but can scan the documents with your own scanner (there are scanner apps available on the Android and iOS app stores), or have copies made on site for a small fee. In some cases, you may want to file a formal, written, open records request. For more information about filing open records requests, see Accessing Public Records and Meetings.
Address Permit Violations
Like the Clean Water Act discussed in Water Quality Permitting, the Clean Air Act imposes strict liability: Any violation establishes liability, regardless of fault.
Determining whether a facility is violating its air permits can be difficult. Facilities are required to submit reports of their emissions, and you certainly should review them to see whether any violations are apparent.
If the reports are false, however, the only way to show a violation would be to measure the facility’s emissions yourself. This is often difficult to do, but environmental professionals may be able to point you to some available resources or experts who can talk with you.
If you can document violations of the air permit, you can try to contact the facility itself or the Air Protection Branch to stop the violations. If those approaches fail, you may be able to file a citizen suit. For more information on citizen suits, see Citizen Suits.