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.
The draft of the new rule acknowledges that some EPA officials believe it could result in higher levels of airborne toxins but calls the regional offices' concerns "unfounded. While this may occur in some instances, it is more likely that sources will adopt [emissions] limitations at or near their current levels to avoid negative publicity and to maintain their appearance as responsible businesses."
The regional offices wrote in their Dec. 13 memo that "this statement is unfounded and overly optimistic."
John Walke, clean air director for NRDC, said the internal EPA memo highlights the flaws in the administration's proposal.
"Such objections underscore how the EPA would weaken the law and allow even more cancer-causing pollution into the air we breathe. This proposal is indefensible," Walke said. "No wonder even some of EPA's own experts are outraged by this secretly hatched plan to please polluters and their powerful friends."
EPA spokeswoman Lisa Lybbert said in a statement that discussing the proposal at this point is premature.
"This is a preliminary draft that is currently under development and internal review which could change before EPA issues it as a proposal. EPA will seek public comment when it issues the proposal," she said.
The proposal drew fire from some in Congress.
"If this draft rule were to be put into effect, polluters could emit many more tons of cancer-causing air pollutants and heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, seriously jeopardizing the health of millions of Americans," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking minority member on Environment and Public Works Committee. "This rule turns the Clean Air Act topsy-turvy by letting polluters run their controls at half-speed."
The proposed rule change was drafted under the oversight of William Wehrum, the acting assistant administrator for the EPA's air and radiation office, who has been nominated to that post on a permanent basis. He is slated to appear tomorrow before the environment committee as it considers his nomination.