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EPA inspector general finds gaps in agency's emissions inspection data

TheU.S. EPA's inspector general has discovered"a universe" of facilities regulated under the Clean Air Act forwhich data on full compliance evaluations, or FCEs, has not been recordedproperly into a public database.

TheEPA Office of Inspector General's May 3 report examined 65 facilities from EPAregions 6, 8 and 9, a small percentage of the overall 1,046 facilitiesidentified to have not received an inspection by either EPA or state officialsin the past five years, according to a public database called the Enforcementand Compliance History Online, or ECHO.

TheOIG report prioritized California, Texas and Colorado, which had the highestnumber of facilities with high priority violations, a noncompliance status oran unknown compliance status. Overall, OIG's analysis identified35 facilities with high-priority violations.

TheEPA is required every two years to conduct FCEs at stationary sources that emitregulated pollutants to ensure that the facilities are in compliance with theagency's laws and regulations. During the inspection, EPA officials will reviewall required reports and records, assess air pollution control devices andoperating logs, observe visible emissions and, in some instances, conduct astack test if there is no other wayto verify compliance with emissions limits.

TheOIG found in some cases the facilities have received the required inspectionsand the information was never updated. Some data were inaccurate and or havenot been updated to reflect facilities downgrading from a major facility to aminor one, and other facilities were in fact behind on their regulatorycompliance inspections.

Theissues found stem from data that is implemented into certain EPA systems thatis intended to eventually migrate into ECHO. A lack of oversight in dataquality has been cited as the reason the information was not updated.

Inthe case of Region 9, which covers California, the OIG had multiple concernsnot found in the other two regions. In one instance, a local air district couldnot locate compliance monitoring reports for several facilities. It also foundthat 89% of the 35 local air districts in California had outdated compliancemonitoring strategies.

"Dueto these conditions, the EPA has less assurance that local agencies inCalifornia are conducting adequate compliance activities, which increases therisk that excess emissions could impact human health and the environment,"the OIG report said.

TheOIG has recommended that the agency establish a process to conduct regular dataquality checks, correct identified inaccuracies, add record-keepingrequirements to the agency's compliance monitoring strategies, and consult withstates and local agencies about facilities that are overdue for an inspection.The EPA mostly agreed with the recommendations and moved to fix the issues.

Butthe agency also noted that some of the errors can be attributed to an obsolete database that has since been updated afterrequests from state and local agencies. The EPA disagreed with the OIG'sassessment that the agency lacks oversight to ensure data accuracy, citing thenew database. The EPA further defended the Region 9 office becauseof the unique challenges faced by the regional staff to manage 35 local airdistricts. Efforts are ongoing to streamline that process.

Amongthe facilities studied in the OIG report were power plants, refineries andnatural gas facilities. The OIG did not provide much detail on the facilities;however, some were more ambiguous than others.

Thereport looked at the Metcalf Energy Center, for example, as one of thefacilities that had received an inspection, but the inspection information hadnot been properly recorded. CalpineCorp. owns the 596-MW natural gas-fired power plant in Californiamatching the description, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data.

Alsocited was a Northwest PipelineLLC facility the report called "LaPlata B," which the OIGindicated had not received an inspection according to the requirements,although the information entered into the ECHO system was accurate. Another gasfacility, which the OIG referred to as the "Rawhide Gas Plant" withinthe Texas Commission on Environmental Quality authority region, also had not received an inspection according torequirements. DCP MidstreamPartners LP has a natural gas processing plant in Glasscock County,Texas, called Rawhide that began operationin 2013.

Arecent report from ICF International that combined multiple studies on methaneemissions found that while emissions data from the natural gas industry hasimproved, multiple studies revealedgaps in understanding and technology. This included the EPA's owngreenhouse gas inventory released in April that used data some industryparticipants and observers found to be outdated.

Theagency announcedplans in March to cut methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources. Theagency plans to collect data on these existing sources of methane emissions,the technologies that could be used to cut emissions and the costs of thosetechnologies.