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Governors, Environmentalists, and Health Advocates Fume Over Bush's Last Minute Air Pollution Rule

J.R. Pegg

Dominion Energy's Brayton Point power plant in Massachusetts burns coal, oil and natural gas. (Photo by Alexey Sergeev)

WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of
six Northeastern governors is urging the Bush administration to abandon
a plan that would relax pollution control requirements on power plants,
saying the proposed rule would increase air pollution and threaten
public health.

The concerns raised by the governors echo worries expressed by
environmentalists and public health advocates, who also fear the Bush
administration is keen to push through additional industry-friendly air
rules before leaving office on January 20, 2009.

The regulation that has drawn the ire of the Northeastern
governors would change a key part of the Clean Air Act's New Source
Review, NSR, program, which was created to ensure that owners of older
power plants would modernize pollution controls when they make
modifications to facilities that result in increased emissions.

Currently, the NSR requirements are triggered when a power plant
makes an upgrade that will result in an increase in annual emissions.
The Bush administration's proposal would change that test, exempting
facilities from NSR if the modifications do not change in the plant's
hourly emissions.

"What might appear to be a simple word change could have an
enormous - and ominous - impact," said Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell.
"Using hourly instead of annual emissions as the threshold for a New
Source Review and the installation of pollution control devices stands
the intent of the Clean Air Act on its head."

Rell, along with fellow Republican governors Donald Carcieri of
Rhode Island and James Douglas of Vermont, sent a letter on Friday
outlining these concerns to the head of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency.

A trio of Democratic govenors - Deval Patrick of Massachusetts,
John Lynch of New Hampshire and John Baldacci of Maine - also signed
the letter.

The governors, repeating concerns raised by environmentalists,
public health advocacy groups and state air pollution regulators,
contend the proposal ignores reality.

The proposal would force federal regulators to "effectively
disregard" the fact that although a modification to a plant may not
boost hourly emissions, it would be very likely to boost annual
emissions by allowing it to operate for longer hours, the governors

"This would result in a net detriment, not a net benefit, to
public health and environmental quality," according to the November 21

The letter also noted that when the Bush administration first
proposed the rule change in October 2005, it argued that two other new
rules developed to cut power plant emissions would ensure older plants
installed newer pollution controls. But those two regulations - the
Clean Air Interstate Rule and the Clean Air Mercury Rule - have been
rejected by federal courts.

If the rule change is finalized, Rell said her state would "pursue every available legal option" to overturn it.

"We have worked far too hard to improve the quality of the air
we breathe," Rell said. "We cannot - and will not - allow our progress
to be undermined by the actions of an EPA that has lost sight of its

But the window for finalizing the new regulation is closing.
The EPA has yet to send the rule to the White House Office of
Management and Budget for final review.

But there are still at least a few weeks before the door closes on the
possibility the rule becomes reality - any regulation deemed to have no
significant economic impact enters into effect 30 days after
publication in the Federal Register.

This means the Bush administration has until at least December
19 to publish rules that will become final before President-elect
Barack Obama takes office.

And regulatory experts believe that overturning rules finalized
by that date could be difficult, potentially requiring EPA to go
through another rulemaking process, something that could take months or
even years.

The concern has environmentalists and public health groups on
high alert, with worries over other possible changes to the NSR
program, including a revision that would weaken Clean Air Act
protections for national parks and wilderness areas.

That regulation centers on requirements originally developed to
limit increases in air pollution that affects parks, wildlife refuges
and other "Class 1" scenic areas afforded special protections under the
Clean Air Act.

The proposal, which is currently under review by the Office of
Management and Budget, would alter how regulators measure pollution
levels near these areas.

Currently, levels are measured over three hour and 24 hour
periods - the Bush administration's change would call for levels to be
averaged over a year.

Critics contend this would undercount the levels of air
pollution, permitting power plants and other industrial facilities to
emit more pollution. Opponents also worry the rule change could make it
easier to build new power plants near parks and other Class 1 areas.

Documents publicized by the "Washington Post" last week
indicate that at least half of the EPA's 10 regional administrators
have formally protested against the idea, raising concerns it would
allow the significant deterioration of air quality in some of the
nation's most pristine areas.

The administration has ignored calls by several key lawmakers -
including the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee,
California Democrat Henry Waxman, to abandon the plan.

The EPA could issue the New Source Review rule as soon as this week. 

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