Published on Saturday, November 23, 2002 by the Cleveland Plain Dealer
EPA Eases Rules on Air Cleanup
Activists Cry Foul
by Sabrina Eaton
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday revised its clean-air rules to make it easier for businesses to modernize without running afoul of air pollution laws. Environmentalists immediately denounced the move as a boon to polluters.
EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the changes to the New Source Review program will promote clean air.
"The steps we are taking today recognize that some aspects of the NSR program have deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution," Whitman said.
Environmental activists said the rules were a payoff to corporate lobbyists and called for Whitman's resignation. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer promised a lawsuit seeking to overturn them.
"This early Christmas gift to industry means more pollution and less protection," said Vermont Sen. James Jeffords, an independent who lost chairmanship of the Senate's environment committee after Republicans gained in this month's elections.
"If the administration is so proud of these regulations, you have to ask yourself why they would wait until after the election, after Congress adjourns for the year, and on the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving to release them."
New Source Review has been a source of controversy since the Clinton administration went to court to try to stop factories and power plants from boosting production by adding new equipment - and new sources of pollution - without getting EPA approval.
Companies countered that they were being penalized for updating their equipment, making their operations more efficient or merely returning to a previous level of productivity. They complained that the process for getting approval under New Source Review was cumbersome and expensive.
Groups including the American Iron and Steel Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers said the new rules will remove regulatory barriers that have prevented companies from reducing pollution. Companies said that if they added new equipment that brought major emissions down, they still were subjected to New Source Review if a minor emission went up slightly.
National Association of Manufacturers Vice President Mark Whitenton dismissed the outrage expressed by environmental groups as "emotional cries of 'wolf,' " that should be left to "demagogic fund-raising letters."
"If we hinder economic growth with inefficient and ambiguous regulations today, we'll limit our capacity to pursue further environmental benefits tomorrow," Whitenton said.
EPA Assistant Administrator Jeff Holmstead said the new emissions rules will take effect a month after they're published in the Federal Register, and won't have much of an effect on pollution from power plants. He predicted they will reduce factories' yearly output of the volatile organic compounds that lead to ozone pollution by as much as 40,000 tons. Pending lawsuits under New Source Review will not be affected, he said.
In a related action that would have greater impact on power plants, the EPA yesterday proposed using cost-based formulas to decide the amount of maintenance, repairs and equipment replacement that power plants can make before they must obtain federal permits under the New Source Review program. Holmstead said the EPA hopes to complete that rule next fall.
"Our No. 1 priority is to reduce emissions from power plants," Holmstead said. While manufacturers are the leading source of compounds that lead to ozone, power plants emit two-thirds of the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain.
Electric industry trade groups said they were disappointed the EPA's proposal didn't specify maintenance procedures that would be allowed on older power plants. Utilities say they have been penalized for inconsequential repairs, while environmentalists argue the fixes extend the lives of coal-burning power plants that should be phased out.
"We need a legal principle that will allow safe, reliable and efficient projects to proceed," said Scott Segal, Director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a trade group.
Lawyers for Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp. want to review EPA's proposed rules before the company takes a stance, said FirstEnergy spokesman Ralph DiNicola.
"We and the rest of the coal-burning industry are interested in a bright line on what constitutes maintenance and what doesn't," DiNicola said. "Greater clarity on the topic would have been better for us and been in the best interest of America's workers and electricity consumers."
Plain Dealer reporter Tom Brazaitis contributed to this report.
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