The Allegheny County Health Department has been so late in keeping up on its paperwork for air quality permits that three environmental groups are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to get involved.

At issue are air quality operating permits, which big polluters like steel mills and power plants need to obtain and then get renewed every five years. These so-called Title V permits give the public a snapshot of how much air pollution a facility will produce.

Under the Clean Air Act, the local and state air quality agencies have 18 months to accept or deny these applications. But Chris Ahlers, an attorney for the Clean Air Council, says many of these applications—most of which are permit renewals—have been sitting with the county health department for years.

“What we have identified is a chronic problem of not complying with that deadline,” Ahlers says. “The extreme examples are cases where applications have been outstanding for up to 20 years. When these permits are not up to date, communities have to conduct their own investigation to figure out what requirements apply to these facilities, and this can be very burdensome and complex.”

Ahlers’ group requested the EPA file a “notice of deficiency” against the county health department. The EPA says it has received the petition and is reviewing it. If it finds the county agency at fault, the EPA could withhold federal highway money or grants from the county, or take away the county’s ability to regulate air emissions.

“What we have identified is a chronic problem of not complying with that deadline. The extreme examples are cases where applications have been outstanding for up to 20 years.”

Last month, the Group Against Smog and Pollution found that about one in three major polluters in southwestern Pennsylvania were operating with an expired Title V operating permit. Jim Thompson, Deputy Director of Environmental Health at the Allegheny County Health Department, says all facilities still have to comply with emissions limits even if their permits are delayed.

“Even if the permits are still out, that doesn’t relieve them of any new [pollution reduction] requirements,” Thompson says.

He says regulatory agencies around the country often get delayed waiting for more information from companies, like the results of air testing. In written comments to the Allegheny County Controller last year, the department said it had a hard time getting companies to respond to requests for more information because “there is currently little incentive for the source to return the information promptly.”

Thompson says since last year, the county has taken a harder line with companies that don’t return information requests and has reduced the number of pending permits.

“We decided to take a harder look at our backlog, and we have changed our policy,” he says.