The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District (SJVAPCD) is the regional air pollution control agency for air pollution sources located in most of Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Fresno, Kings, Madera, Tulare, and Kern Counties. As mentioned in an earlier article (see the attached link), the SJVAPCD in general regulates stationary sources of air pollution. It issues operating permits conditioned to ensure that the sources operate in compliance with air pollution regulations.
Sometimes, the operators of the permitted equipment encounter circumstances that would prevent them from meeting those permit conditions without shutting down. In fact, even shutting down operations may still result in failure to comply with permit conditions.
An example of the latter would be an oil field storage tank that must have an operating vapor recovery system in place at all times. If for some reason the vapor recovery system was not working, the operator would be violating this requirement, even if he stopped all production into the tank, because the tank would still be storing oil.
In order to assist companies that may face such situations, California state law allows for the existance of Hearing Boards for each local air agency. These Hearing Boards are comprised of five people appointed to three year terms and consist of an attorney, a medical professional, a professional engineer, and two public members. They are authorized, provided that the permit holder (or petitioner) meets certain conditions, to grant a “variance” or permission to violate permit requirements that cannot be met.
Using the oil storage tank example above, normal operation of the tank vapor recovery system may require that the captured gases be collected and sent by pipeline to another company’s gas processing plant. It may happen that the other company had an unforeseen equipment failure or some planned maintenance that prevents it from accepting any gas from the vapor recovery system.
A possible solution for this dilemma would be for the tank operator to petition the Hearing Board for permission to violate its operating conditions until the problem at the other facility is resolved. Typically, before the Hearing Board would grant such permission, the tank operator would have to demonstrate that there would be an economic hardship, that there was no other practical alternative, that no public nuisance would result, and that the resultant excess emissions were mitigated.
The Hearing Board also hears petitions to resolve disputes between a permit holder, the public, and/or the SJVAPCD itself. It can do this because, technically, the Hearing Board is not governed by the SJVAPCD – it is a quasi-judicial entity by itself and sometimes supports variance petitions that are opposed by SJVAPCD staff.
In Bakersfield, the Southern Region of the SJVAPCD Hearing Board meets on the first Wednesday of every month at the SJVAPCD offices in Bakersfield. Sometimes, an emergency situation may develop. When this occurs, an Emergency Variance may be granted during a special meeting between the petitioner, SJVAPCD staff, and only one member of the Hearing Board.
All of these meetings must be properly noticed and are open to the public, who may testify for or against a particular petition. A schedule of Hearing Board meetings (and summaries of the results of previous meetings) can be found on the SJVAPCD’s website, here: Southern Region Hearing Board .
These meetings are often routine and rarely attended by the public. However, they sometimes are an eye-opener, both for the regulated industries and the general public, providing an insight into an aspect of environmental regulation that is not generally well known.