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EPA Eases Pollution Guidelines

New rules will allow flexibility in meeting clean-air regulations on plant repairs, upgrades.

November 23, 2002|Elizabeth Shogren | By Elizabeth Shogren Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency granted industry a long-standing wish Friday by allowing companies greater flexibility in complying with clean-air requirements when they repair and expand their plants.

It also proposed a rules change that would allow industry to count substantial modifications as "routine maintenance" without triggering requirements for installing up-to-date, plant-wide pollution controls.

Industry groups welcomed the new flexibility, but complained of continued uncertainty because the proposed rules are not final and could be changed before they take effect.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said EPA's announcement "brings some greater rationality" to clean-air regulation. "We believe that EPA has left some unfinished business on the table," he said.

Environmentalists, congressional Democrats and officials in heavily polluted states, by contrast, condemned EPA's actions as likely to allow big polluters to pollute even more.

"These regulations are replete with major loopholes that will allow industry throughout the country to escape requirements for state-of-the-art pollution controls," said William Becker, executive director of associations of state and local pollution control officials.

The new regulations are changes to a set of rules put in place by the Clinton administration that required companies to install state-of-the-art pollution controls when they made major modifications or additions to existing plants.

The new rules generally will not affect California, because its clean-air laws are tougher than the federal law.

But about half the states operate under laws that prevent them from adopting tougher pollution controls than the federal standards.

Southern and Midwestern states that rely on coal-burning power plants for their electricity, and the states that are downwind from them, are potentially most affected by the rule changes.

New York and Connecticut, whose skies are choked with pollution that flows in from industrial centers and power plants west of them, led a movement of state officials to block the regulations.

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Call for Resignation

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Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), arguing that the White House forced EPA to accept the rule changes, called on EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to resign in protest.

"All this rule will do is extend the life of the dirtiest industrial plants and worsen the lives of citizens that breathe the pollution from their smokestacks every day," he said.

"These changes represent the most serious attack on the Clean Air Act in its nearly 30-year history," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

"They will lead to more air pollution, more smog and more cases of asthma and other preventable illnesses in American children and adults," he said.

The changes reflect the Bush administration philosophy that if industry is allowed more flexibility, it will voluntarily reduce pollution.

"EPA is taking actions now to improve [regulation] and thereby encourage emissions reductions," Whitman said in a statement.

EPA officials said the changes were necessary because many companies now refrain from modifying their plants to make them more efficient and productive because it triggers the requirement to install modern pollution control devices.

The result is bad for the economy and for the air, officials said.

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Changes This Year

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"The steps we are taking today recognize that some aspects of the program have deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution," Whitman said.

Some of the regulatory changes announced Friday will take effect this year after a formal review by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

One of the changes will allow companies to enter into agreements with air regulators to keep emissions at their plants below an agreed-upon cap. The companies could retool and modernize these plants without triggering the requirement to install modern pollution control devices, as long as their total emissions did not exceed the cap.

EPA said this provision will be particularly helpful to computer chip manufacturers and other cutting-edge industries that frequently change their production lines.

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New Calculations

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Another change would reward the installation of state-of-the-art pollution controls with 10 years of immunity from governmental pollution reviews.

The new rules also change the calculation of whether a plant modification would increase pollution. The plant owner could compute the increase based on any 24-month period in the last 10 years, not necessarily the most recent 24 months.

John Walke, director the clean-air program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said these changes were designed to disguise pollution increases.

"On paper, the gimmick indicates there has been no increase in pollution," Walke said. "But the air gets dirtier in the real world."

Many observers said the more significant part of Friday's regulatory package was a proposal that faces months of public comment and governmental review before taking effect. This would change the definition of "routine maintenance" to a plant.

Routine maintenance does not trigger requirements for updated pollution controls. Friday's proposal would classify substantial renovations as routine maintenance.

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Times staff writer Gary Polakovic in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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