"We need to be sure that when the states fail at protecting our air – the air our children breathe – then we have safety nets to fall back on," said Baron.
"The law requires EPA to step in and administer strong permit guidelines for clean air when states fail to do so," said Keri Powell, director of NYPIRG's Clean Air Enforcement Campaign.
Title V of the federal Clean Air Act requires these permit programs to limit industrial emissions of toxics, particulates, smog precursors, and other pollutants. The permits must spell out pollution limits, monitoring requirements, compliance schedules and other provisions to implement clean air laws.
By 1993, states were required by law to adopt permit programs to limit pollutants. However, EPA found programs in many states to be deficient. Illegal waivers and exemptions, inadequate requirements for emission limits, lenient penalties and improper barriers to citizens' ability to challenge weak permits were some of the problems found in many of the states in question.
Instead of disapproving these programs and taking action, EPA gave the states repeated time extensions to correct them – an effort that proved fruitless, as the programs remain unchanged.
"Instead of continuing to give extension after extension in hopes that one day the states will get their act together and make the right changes, this agreement will help to ensure the job finally gets done," said Bob Palzer, chair of the Sierra Club's air quality committee.
The agreement also sets up a process for citizens to raise additional concerns about deficient permit programs. Conservationists charge that a number of states are issuing weak permits with little or no monitoring and lax enforcement. Under the settlement EPA is slated, within the next few weeks, to set up a 90-day public comment period to receive complaints about permit program deficiencies. The settlement also provides for EPA to respond to those complaints, and require action by the states to correct any deficiencies that EPA identifies in the process.
The states and territories that face the December, 2001 deadline for upgrading their programs are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virgin Islands, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Washington.