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EPA Plan to Allow More Air Pollution Draws Friendly Fire

A proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency to weaken air emission standards and reporting requirements for industrial operations that spew tons of toxins into the atmosphere each year has angered the agency’s regional administrators, who say they were never consulted about the proposed change and predict that the new rule would be "detrimental to the environment."

Officials from nine of the EPA’s 10 regional offices expressed their outrage in an internal memo dated December 13, 2005. The memo was leaked to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a highly respected environmental advocacy group, and made public on Monday, April 3, 2006, along with a copy of the draft regulation that sparked the controversy.

Regional EPA Officials Warn Agency Against "Disturbing" Trends
In the internal memo to high-ranking EPA officials, the regional administrators said that the proposed rule represents a "drastic change in interpretation" of existing regulations under the Clean Air Act. In addition, they said, “this trend of excluding the regional offices from involvement in the rule and policy development effort is disturbing."

Under the proposed rule, many oil refineries, hazardous waste incinerators, chemical plants, steel mills and other plants that release thousands of pounds of arsenic, mercury, lead and other airborne toxins would be allowed to increase their emissions.

Under current law, industrial plants that release 10 tons or more of a single toxin in a year, or 25 tons or more of a combination of toxins, must install "maximum achievable control technology" to reduce their emissions by at least 95 percent. The draft proposal would eliminate that requirement for polluters that have brought their emissions below 25 tons annually, thereby allowing them to increase their emissions up to the 25-ton limit.

Trust Polluters To Do the Right Thing?
One section of the proposal said industrial plant operators would not do seek to increase toxic emissions because they would want "to avoid negative publicity and to maintain their appearance as responsible businesses." The industries likely to be affected by the proposed regulation welcomed the change and said it would ease the burden of doing business under current law.

But the memo from the regional administrators said that the EPA’s belief that polluters would keep their emissions low to avoid bad publicity was "unfounded and overly optimistic." They warned that "allowing facilities to backslide would undermine the maximum achievable emissions reductions mandated by Congress."

According to John Walke, clean air director for the NRDC, the proposed rule fails to explain how the public or the government would even know when violations occur, because the rule also would relieve exempted facilities from current monitoring and reporting requirements intended to help regulators keep tabs on toxic emissions.

"The EPA has surrendered its responsibilities," Walke said. "Why is the environmental cop on the beat throwing away his weapon and crossing his fingers that the bad guys will make nice voluntarily? What has EPA come to that it is abandoning law enforcement against toxic polluters and hoping the media will pick up the slack?"

Political Implications of EPA Proposal and Memo
Disclosure of the memo and the draft proposal are particularly important now, because the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works is set to begin reviewing President Bush’s nomination of Bill Wehrum to head the EPA's air office. Wehrum has been serving as acting head of the office, and the proposal was developed on his watch.

Sen. James M. Jeffords, an independent from Vermont and ranking member of the committee, said in a statement that the "rationale and ramifications of this rule will be front and center" at the hearing on Wehrum’s confirmation, which is scheduled to begin today.

Bill Holbrook, a spokesman for Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the committee chairman, said Inhofe knew "very little" about the proposal, "other than it was drafted by career EPA staff and has not been completely vetted by the administration."

More Information:

EPA Faces Internal Outcry On Airborne Emissions Plan -- Washington Post
EPA Weighs Easing Rules on Toxic Air Pollutants -- National Public Radio
Secret EPA Rule Would Allow More Carcinogens in Air -- NRDC Press Release

Related Links

Federal Court Rules in Favor of Clean Air
EPA Rewards Polluters with Less Oversight
More Than Half of U.S. Population Lives in Counties with Unsafe Air
Six Ex-EPA Chiefs Urge Bush to Curb Global Warming
Wednesday April 5, 2006 | comments (0)

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