EPA Faces Internal Outcry On Airborne Emissions Plan

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

A proposal to revise how the Environmental Protection Agency regulates airborne toxic emissions from industrial plants has sparked an outcry from the agency's regional offices, with a majority suggesting that the change would be "detrimental to the environment."

The proposed rule, whose wording was disclosed yesterday by the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), would change the emissions standards for oil refineries, hazardous waste incinerators, chemical plants, steel mills and other plants that discharge thousands of pounds of airborne toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

Under current law, plants that emit 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 cut those emissions by 95 percent or more. The draft proposal would lift that requirement from polluters that have reduced their emissions to below 25 tons a year, potentially allowing emissions to increase so long as they stay under the 25-ton limit.

An internal EPA memo summarizing the position of eight of the agency's 10 regional offices, dated Dec. 13, contended the change could conceivably result in an increase in toxic emissions. Seven of the offices agreed that the proposal would allow polluters to "virtually avoid regulation and greatly complicate any enforcement."

Individual regional offices occasionally object to proposed policy shifts by EPA headquarters, but it is rare for such a large number of regional offices to join forces in such a forceful rebuke.

The new dispute follows a string of high-profile controversies over the administration's enforcement of national air-quality laws, many of them focused on regulation of aging coal-fired power plants.

The dispute also points to a broader polarization within the agency. The internal memo said that regional officials were eager to comment on the proposal, but EPA headquarters was "reluctant to share the draft policy with the Regional Offices. This trend of excluding the regional offices from involvement in the rule and policy development effort is disturbing."

One EPA official familiar with the proposal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the rule went further than many staff members thought was necessary.

"There are ways you could make regulations less burdensome for industry," the agency official said. "This is beyond. . . . It seems to be driven more by political considerations."

Industries likely to be affected by the proposed change welcomed it.

Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, said in an interview that the administration was trying to compensate for the fact that once a polluter becomes subject to the technology requirement, it remains stuck in the program permanently unless it can clean up its plants within three years.

"All they're trying to do is explore ways they might encourage [industrial] sources to install pollution reduction measures or other emissions reduction mechanisms," Slaughter said.

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