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An audit from a county watchdog agency found the Allegheny County Health Department has improved its permitting program for major polluters, but shows the agency still has work to do to reach full compliance. 

Under the Clean Air Act, the county health department is supposed to approve or deny air pollution permit applications from major sources, like steel mills or power plants, within 18 months of submission. But some applications have sat for years or even decades before action was taken. 

The health department has been pressured by environmental groups and the EPA to reduce its backlog.  

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner’s office found the department still had several permits that were pending, but found a big improvement over the last time it audited the program in 2014. 

“Five years ago when we last did the audit, there were outstanding permits for nearly 20 years back in time,” said Lou Takacs, a spokesman for the controller’s office. “The oldest outstanding permit right now is from 2014.”

Takacs said after the last audit, the county health department brought in a consultant to review its procedures and hired additional staff to handle permits. 

The main thing we found in the previous audit was that staffing was an issue that they basically weren’t dedicating adequate resources to this permanent program,” Takacs said.

Facilities can still operate without an up-to-date permit, and must still follow other pollution control regulations. Most of the permit applications are renewals for existing facilities.

Environmental groups say having the permits be up-to-date helps the public understand what kind of pollution is coming from these sources. 

“These permits lay out important terms for air quality monitoring, which is how the residents can have an idea of what they’re breathing, what is in their air,” said Zach Barber, clean air coordinator for the group PennEnvironment. 

Barber said that when a company renews its permit, it often leads to updated technology.

We often see that as these permits get renewed, more powerful pollution control or other pollution limits get put in that can help lower pollution,” Barber said.

The county health department said some of the permits remaining on its backlog have been delayed by legal action.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.