Public Lab Research note

How to read a Permit Application

by kgradow1 | December 16, 2020 20:54 16 Dec 20:54 | #25269 | #25269

Adapted from the Statistics for Action Air Quality Unit "A First Look at Technical Documents" and generously shared with permission. You can access a printable version of this guide at

Click here for a facilitator's guide. Original print version

Strategies for Reading Permit Documents

Permits are granted by government agencies. Many documents are generated in a permitting process. Permit granting is political -- a balance of socio-economic benefits vs. environmental degradation. Granting or renewing a permit requires public involvement, where people can comment on both sides of that balance.

  • A permit application is a document proposing a new project. The proposing company fills out the application. A government agency then decides whether or not to grant the permit, and what restrictions the permit should specify. Most permits eventually expire and must be renewed.
  • A release permit lets a company put a certain amount of pollution into the water, air, or soil in a period of time. This can be called a release, discharge, runoff, or effluent.
  • A site permit allows a company to construct a building and parking lots, checking to see if the company has a plan (both during construction and long-term) for dealing with water, sewage, trash, construction pollution, electricity, traffic, stormwater runoff, etc.
  • Other permits limit the amount or type of fuel a company can burn, or how much water or power they can use. Special permits are required for companies whose business is storing or treating hazardous waste.

Typical Sections

Select a typical page or two from each section. Section names vary greatly, depending on the type of permit and the granting agency. Focus on the issue you care about most. If you think the company isn't being truthful, use sections that depend on numbers provided by the company. Most permit documents specify exact numbers for each building, tank, boiler, furnace, machine, etc. regulating:

  • what it does, and how long and how often it can operate
  • what chemicals are used and how, where and how they are stored, and any possible contact with people
  • how much fuel, water, or power it can consume
  • how much contamination it can release in a period of time
  • how often it should be monitored and inspected, and how that information should be kept and reported

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Categories of Questions & Observations

Below are typical categories into which questions and observations can be grouped.

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Originally published by TERC in 2014 with support from the National Science Foundation and shared with permission. Any materials posted on Public Lab are not endorsed by TERC or NSF and do not necessarily represent the views of either organization. Images courtesy of the Rini Templeton estate.

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