Learn when a cannabis growing or processing operation needs an air quality permit!
If you operate a cannabis growing or processing operation, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard some talk of air permits by now.
If you haven’t, we’ll bring you up to speed real quick – in a nutshell, air permits are basically licenses that allow you to release air pollution without getting into trouble, under certain conditions and restrictions.
So, what’s the big deal? Would a cannabis facility need an air permit? Cannabis growing and processing operations don’t release air pollution, do they?
Short answer – in many cases, yes, cannabis facilities do release harmful pollutants to the environment, and therefore, often do need air permits due to operating equipment and/or processing. The long answer as to whether or not YOUR cannabis facility needs an air permit, however, is a little more complicated. Let’s dive a little deeper into specifics.
When does a cannabis facility need an air permit?
One of the most important factors in whether or not your particular cannabis operation needs an air permit is the location of your facility. Air permits are highly dependent on the regulatory agency enforcing them, which in turn depends on location. In short, air permits are always, at a minimum, going to be state specific.
So for example, if you're operating a cannabis facility in New Jersey, you'd very likely need an air permit from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).
Conversely, in places like California, you would receive an air permit from your local Air Quality Management District (such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, obviously for the Bay Area of California), which each respectively covers a region of California.
And as a final, confusing example, if you operate a cannabis facility in Nevada, let's say within the greater Las Vegas area, you'd get an air permit from Clark County's Department of Environment and Sustainability (DES).
What goes in one area (state, region, county, etc.) may not go for a similar facility in another area. That is, your local regulatory agency may require your cannabis facility to have an air permit, while another regulatory agency in a neighboring state, region, county, city, etc., may not require a facility identical to yours to have one! Unfair? Maybe, but unfortunately, that’s just the way it is with air permits (and many environmental regulations within the US).
Obviously, we can’t go into detail on every regulatory agency’s policy on air permits at cannabis facilities here (that’d be a long, long article), so your first step in figuring out if your operation needs an air permit is to figure out who your regulatory agency is, and start digging into regulations. For some, this is an easy lift, while for others this may require getting the assistance of an air permitting expert.
What type of equipment typically triggers the need for an air permit at a cannabis operation?
Okay, so location is going to make a big difference on whether or not you’ll need an air permit at your cannabis facility. The other main piece of the puzzle that you’ll need to consider is the type of equipment and operations at your facility that release emissions (air pollution).
In reality, there are probably countless different types of equipment and processes at cannabis facilities that could trigger the need for an air permit. To keep it short here, we’ll just say this – the three most common reasons that we see cannabis operations needing air permits are:
Emergency backup or supplemental generators
Shredding and grinding equipment
Extraction and distillation processes
Again, this isn’t an all-inclusive list, just the most common reasons we see cannabis facilities needing air permits. Let’s briefly take a closer look at each.
Emergency Backup or Supplemental Generators Requiring Air Permits at Cannabis Facilities
It’s no secret that growing cannabis takes a lot of energy! Whether you have generators on stand-by to keep grow lights and other essential processes up and running during power outages, or you need supplemental power because your local utilities aren’t enough, a generator is very likely to cause you to need some sort of air quality permit.
Why? Well, generators are generally either powered by diesel or natural gas. When these fuels are burned to power your generator, they are released into the air as pollution, just like the exhaust that comes out of a vehicle with an internal combustion engine.
That simple concept (burning fuel in a generator and making exhaust) often means one thing in the eyes of regulators – you need an air quality permit!
Air Permits for Shredding & Grinding Equipment at Cannabis Facilities
Equipment like shredders, grinders, mulchers – even things like conveyors, baggers, and bins – is another potential trigger for needing an air permit. If this equipment is powered by some sort of fuel (such as diesel), then it’s the same situation as the generators we mentioned above. Again, just like your car, engine exhaust is pollution!
However, even if this equipment is completely electrically powered, you’re still not out of the woods! Air permits are also commonly needed for “fugitive emissions”. These types of emissions don’t come from burning fuels, but instead, have to do with kicking particles of pollution up into the air. So, if you run your cannabis or other unwanted organic matter (whatever's left over after harvesting, trimming, etc.) through some sort of industrial shredder or grinder, and any sort of dust, dirt, or other plant matter/debris is created, you could still need an air permit, even if the equipment is electric!
Notice here that you get hit with a sort of “double whammy” if you have traditional fuel-burning equipment that also creates fugitive emissions. In that case, you’re even more likely to need an air permit.
The extraction and distillation processes of cannabis may require air permits.
Another big trigger for an air permit in the cannabis industry is any sort of extraction or distillation process. Usually, these processes involve some sort of liquid or gas solvent, like ethanol, butane, or propane.
Even though most state-of-the-art extraction and distillation equipment on the market today are advertised as “closed-loop systems”, some of that solvent is bound to be released here and there. Most solvent recovery rates are close to 90-98%, meaning that up to 10% of the solvent you’re using is escaping into the air.
Once again, that’s often going to mean you need an air permit!
Why does my cannabis operation need an air permit anyway?
Frankly, because it’s the law. Your facility, for various reasons, more than likely needs an air permit. In the same way you have to pay taxes, or can’t speed on the road, it’s the law, and not following the law comes with very real risks.
What kind of risks? For a facility that needs an air permit, getting caught operating without one usually means monetary fines and shutting off the equipment/shutting down the process that requires a permit until one is obtained. Unfortunately, air permits can take several months to obtain (depending on lots of factors), so you could potentially be without an important piece of equipment or process for months while you apply for a permit and wait for it to be reviewed, not good!
In some cases, operating without an air permit can even mean shutting down your facility completely until one is obtained, and in extreme cases, possibly even jail time for responsible parties. I know, this sounds extreme, but most environmental regulations in this country include language for criminal prosecution (we're not lawyers so excuse us if we didn't word that correctly) in extreme cases of breaking environmental laws. This isn’t likely, but it is a very real possibility if your regulatory agency really wants to “throw the book at you”. There's a handful of people every year popping up in news articles getting jail time due to breaking environmental laws. Crazy, but true!
As you can see, while getting an air permit can be a bit of a pain, it’s much, much better than getting caught without a permit if you need one! So, if you’re still unsure as to whether or not you need an air permit at your cannabis operation, it’s probably best to reach out to an air permitting expert.
How much does an air permit cost at a cannabis facility?
You’re probably tired of this answer by now (sorry!), but it depends! We see air permits cost cannabis facilities anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000 upfront. That’s a big range, right?
When you start to factor in the costs of ongoing compliance associated with air permits, things get even more complicated (and the price gets higher!). If you’d like to take a closer look at what an air permit may cost your particular cannabis operation, we have an article on the cost of air permits at cannabis facilities that dives deeper into the topic.
Does my cannabis operation need any other environmental permits?
Probably! There are a whole host of other environmental permits and regulations that a cannabis facility could be subject to. Just like air permits, whether or not they apply to your facility is usually going to depend on a few different factors.
In our experience, the most common areas of environmental regulation outside of air permits that apply to cannabis facilities are: