OIG Audit Finds Gaps in City’s Air Pollution Permit and Inspections Program

The City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG) has completed an audit of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s (CDPH) air pollution enforcement which finds that gaps in the Department’s approach to inspections and violations increases the risk of excessive emissions that harm the public and the environment. Due to insufficient staffing and a lack of written guidance on how to prioritize the highest-risk facilities for inspection, CDPH met its internally set goals for the frequency of air-quality inspections less than half of the time between 2015 and 2017. Infrequent inspections reduce incentives for permitholders to renew their annual certificates of operation because violations are more likely to go undiscovered. However, OIG found that CDPH responded relatively quickly to air-quality complaints. The Department set a commendably aggressive goal of responding to air-quality complaints within 24 hours—which is critical given the fleeting nature of air emissions—and met that goal 84% of the time between 2015-2017.

OIG made several recommendations to strengthen CDPH’s permit and inspection program. These include,

• developing inspection priorities and goals based on factors such as the proximity of polluting facilities to overburdened communities, public health data, violation patterns, and inspection practices in peer jurisdictions;
• drafting and adopting an inspection manual;
• working to fill vacant positions and determining whether additional inspectors are needed; and
• developing, documenting, and implementing an enforcement system that takes full advantage of currently available data to ensure facilities renew their certificates on time.

In response, CDPH largely agreed with our recommendations and stated that it will develop inspection frequency goals; continue filling vacant inspection positions; engage a consultant to help determine appropriate staffing levels; finalize an inspection manual; and develop and implement an enforcement mechanism to identify facilities that have not renewed their annual certificates and ensure they come into compliance.

“In 2011, the prior Administration dismantled the Department of Environment (DOE), scattering its program and regulatory functions across nine other City departments and offices. CDPH was assigned the task of regulatory oversight of air pollution in the form of soot, microscopic particles, and toxic airborne chemicals, which cause significant harm to the environment and human health. Our audit found that CDPH’s inspection program is not fulfilling its prescribed role in mitigating such harms,” said Inspector General Joe Ferguson. “As we have seen in numerous audits of regulatory oversight functions in recent years, a key culprit is resourcing. That broader phenomenon starts with a failure to cost out new regulatory regimes and standards to assure the funding needed for full implementation, and a general failure to hold public hearings to periodically assess whether appropriations align with evolving needs and priorities. While this audit critiques CPDH’s management of one component of environmental enforcement, our findings should be cause for assessment of the broader environmental protection enterprise in the aftermath of the dismemberment of DOE. CDPH agreed with our recommendations and has already begun implementing corrective actions, but it is crucial that the Department keeps working on its internal policies and procedures to protect air quality throughout the City, for years to come.”

The full report can be found online at OIG’s website: bit.ly/CDPHPollution

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