Environmental Protection Agency

Recommendations and Actions

EPA02: Streamline EPA's Permit Program


Historically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its state partners have relied heavily on permits as the primary vehicle to achieve environmental protection. A permit is an authority granted by EPA to the permit holder to discharge a pollutant into the environment or to store, treat, or dispose of hazardous waste materials. The permit reflects the limitations established by the statutes for pollution discharges and handling of hazardous wastes. Permits may be general or specific. General permits state exactly what is required of a class of facilities, such as in the dry cleaning or the paper pulp industry. General permits are used when it is impractical or unnecessary to issue individual permits for each of many small facilities with similar operations. Specific permits dictate what a given facility is required to do, often taking into account particular conditions at the specific facility. While this strategy has succeeded in controlling sources of pollution from large, centralized facilities, the current permitting process has been less effective in managing small, diverse, and decentralized sources of pollution, like stormwater discharges.

Currently, EPA and the states are responsible for processing more than 730,000 permits in the media (air, water, solid waste, and toxics). EPA budgets more than 1,000 positions annually (most of which are located in regional and field offices) and provides about $800 million in the form of grants to states and contract dollars to conduct permit activities.(1) Despite this resource investment, it is not always possible to issue or reissue permits in a timely manner due to insufficient data available to the EPA or state permit writer. Depending on the type of permit, the time it takes from application to issuance may range from 10 months to two years.

EPA operates under 12 major environmental statutes and the regulations implementing those statutes. In order to ensure due process, some permit programs tend to prescribe the specific means by which environmental protection is achieved. This eliminates the opportunity to use innovative or alternative approaches. These requirements constrain EPA's ability to address cross-media concerns and innovative pollution abatement methods, even when the statute does not prohibit such approaches. For example, point sources (such as discharges from facilities), nonpoint sources (such as fertilizer runoff), wastewater effluent, and stormwater discharges would benefit from alternative solutions in permitting. A true cross-media approach can be stymied if no flexibility is available in a different statute.

Given the large volume and different kinds of permits, neither the states nor EPA can effectively address all of their permittees. This raises the question of whether permits are always the best mechanism for achieving environmental protection. Consequently, it is essential to prioritize, group, and target permitting activities according to types of facilities to be regulated, their geographic location, and the nature of the types of permits that will be required.

Because the responsibility for issuing permits is divided between EPA and the states without clear-cut lines delineating respective expectations and responsibilities, miscommunication often adds to the delay in the permitting process. States must rely on EPA to provide them with technical guidance and permit rules. When EPA does not provide the guidance, implementation becomes problematic. For example, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) required EPA to issue a permit rule by November 15, 1991; however, disagreement among EPA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Council on Competitiveness over certain requirements in the final rule delayed its issuance for eight months. This in turn caused a delay in issuing the final permit rule for federal and state implementation of Title V's requirements.

Moreover, some state legislatures deferred action on bills authorizing agencies to implement permit programs and collect permit fees. For example, while EPA has provided some guidance on implementing Title V, additional program and fee guidance that it planned to provide to states in 1992 has not been issued. Consequently, some states will find it difficult to meet the November 1993 deadline set by the CAAA for submitting their permit program plans to EPA.(2) Delays in meeting the milestones for implementing the permit program slow efforts to improve air quality, determine emission levels, monitor emissions, and fulfill other requirements.

Both the regulators and the regulated community (the permittees) view the permitting process as an administrative burden. They have complained that too many forms are required to apply for a permit. This excess paperwork adds to the administrative burden at both the state and federal level and significantly slows the permit review process.

Many states believe that EPA practices excessive oversight. States with well-established pollution control permit programs have indicated that a more appropriate role for EPA is in technology transfer, not in excessive oversight of the states. These states would prefer more authority to carry out their program responsibilities. For example, in the water quality permitting program, some states raised concerns that EPA micromanages each water quality permit issued by the state. Some states suggest that greater environmental protection could be achieved by refocusing EPA's activities from individual permit reviews to technical assistance services and development of a state/federal resource allocation plan to address water quality problems with the highest environmental risk.

Furthermore, the lack of an integrated database system and mechanism to track permits in the states or regional EPA offices makes it very difficult for applicants to know permit requirements, and for regulators to know the types of permits, number of permits, and geographic location of the various permitted facilities. Partnerships with the states need to be developed to build the integrated databases that would enhance monitoring and compliance for enforcement and provide information for emergency responses to environmental accidents.

Finally, as stated earlier, the current permitting procedures and programs do not effectively encourage flexibility. Even when regulations and statutes allow for various approaches, the agency budgeting and planning process does not allow upfront investments to pay for them. Although some statutes do not specifically prohibit pilot projects, many dictate the specific technology that must be used. Without incentives to encourage new approaches, little progress will be made in streamlining the permit process. For instance, the National Advisory Council For Environmental Policy and Technology has stated that the current permitting and compliance systems discourage all stakeholder groups from taking the risks necessary to develop innovative technologies whether for pollution prevention or for pollution control and to bring them into routine use to solve environmental problems.(3)


1. EPA should establish a permits clearinghouse by July 1995 to serve as a single point of contact for regulated industries and local governments to obtain information about national and regional regulations and permitting requirements.

This should include general, simple to understand information, as well as names and numbers of state and/or EPA regional or headquarters contacts for technical assistance on permitting issues. The clearing-house should offer a national EPA permit hotline and computer bulletin board.

2. EPA should authorize states that now have full statutory authority and permit fee systems in place to take full responsibility for permit programs.

This would allow states needed flexibility in dealing with local program requirements instead of relying on the one-size-fits-all approach.

3. EPA should identify, by June 1994, statutes that prevent flexibility in permitting and report to the Administrator for follow- up action.

Flexibility in permitting is needed to stimulate new approaches for pollution abatement. EPA should direct regional offices to use more flexibility in dealings with states, especially where traditional approaches have proven ineffective.

4. EPA should develop a cross-program permit tracking system pilot with one state and one region by June 1994.

This would allow for multi-media permit assessment, cross-media compliance, and enforcement


, as well as greater access for the public and researchers to permit information. In addition, such a database could include environmental results and outcomes based on monitoring systems with feedback and targeting for permit programs. If the pilot project is successful, the technology could be transferred to other states.


Streamlining and simplifying the permitting process will increase stakeholder participation and credibility as well as EPA and state level administrative costs savings. Increased state partnerships will improve performance and increase stakeholder participation in the permitting process. Establishment of a permit clearinghouse will improve customer satisfaction by reducing paperwork and other administrative burdens. Development of a permit tracking database will expedite the permit process, target risk assessment, and provide information for emergency responses to environmental mishaps.

Fiscal Impact

Streamlining by reducing delays and staff time in the permitting process could result in savings for EPA, the states, and the regulated communities. Additional personnel needed for 1994-96 should be reassigned from existing staff within the agency.

Budget Authority (BA) and Outlays

(Dollars in Millions)

 Fiscal Year  1994     1995     1996     1997     1998     1999    Total
 BA            0.0      0.0     0.0     -7.5     -7.5     -7.5     -22.5
 Outlays       0.0      0.0     0.0     -4.0     -7.5     -7.5     -19.0
 Change         0        0       0      -100     -150     -150     -150
 in FTEs


1. Data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency's Budget Office.

2. See U.S. General Accounting Office: Air Pollution, Difficulties in Implementing a National Air Permit Program, GAO/RCED-93-59 ( Washington, D.C.: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1993).

3. See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Permitting and Compliance Policy: Barriers to U.S. Environmental Technology Innovation, Report and Recommendations of Technology Innovation and Economics Committee (Washington, D.C., January 1991).

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