State report questions Louisiana’s air quality enforcement

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Though Louisiana’s air quality has improved in recent years, state regulators should be doing more to ensure companies are complying with air quality rules, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor says.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality agreed with some of the LLA’s conclusions but said adding staff as the auditor’s office suggests may not be affordable.

According to the LLA’s analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, the number of “good” air quality days in Louisiana has increased from 191.9 days in calendar year 2008 to 232 days in 2018, or about a 21 percent improvement. Meanwhile, the number of unhealthy days for sensitive groups decreased about 75 percent, from 14.3 days to 3.6 days.

But according to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory, Louisiana has the highest toxic air emissions per square mile of any state. Parts of the state have shown elevated risks for cancer and respiratory problems, the EPA says.

DEQ does not issue enforcement actions in a timely manner to facilities that violate air permit requirements, the LLA says. From fiscal years 2015 through 2019, the time it took DEQ to issue enforcement actions increased by 102.1 percent, from an average of 289 days to an average of 585 days.

“As a result, there is a risk that facilities may have violations that remain uncorrected for years,” the LLA’s report says.

DEQ doesn’t effectively track whether companies pay the fines the department assesses, and the settlement process through which penalties are assessed takes more than two years on average, the auditor’s office says. Not having enough staff, frequent turnover among employees, and ineffective data systems all create challenges for the department, according to LLA’s assessment.

In a written response to the LLA report, DEQ Secretary Chuck Carr Brown says his department will consider rearranging staff.

“While we appreciate the recommendation to request additional positions for the agency, given the current funding position of the agency and the state, the ability to obtain new positions may not be feasible at this time,” he says.

But other LLA suggestions may be doable, Brown says. For example, DEQ is working on developing a comprehensive data system that more of its employees can access.

DEQ agrees that there might be room for improvement in its processes for receiving and processing penalty payments. But Brown pushed back at the notion that the department isn’t effectively tracking whether penalties are paid, saying the information is verified monthly and reported annually to the Legislature.

The LLA recommends setting a hard deadline for companies to submit offers to settle enforcement actions, with penalties for those that don’t comply. Brown says that approach may not be suitable for all facilities, though including a recommended timeline in settlement requests could be helpful.