EPA Abruptly Backs Away From Proposals to Alter Air-Pollution Rules

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency yesterday abandoned its push to revise two air-pollution rules in ways that environmentalists had long opposed, abruptly dropping measures that the Bush administration had spent years preparing.

One proposal would have made it easier to build a coal-fired power plant, refinery or factory near a national park. The other would have altered the rules that govern when power plants must install antipollution devices. Environmentalists said it would result in fewer such cleanups.

EPA officials had been trying to finalize both proposals before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in Jan. 20. But yesterday, an agency spokesman said they were giving up, surprising critics and supporters of the measures.

"These two items are not things we're going to get done in the next 48 days" before Obama's inauguration, EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said. He said the EPA still supports the proposals, which have both been in the works for at least three years.

Shradar said the agency was abiding by an administration order against "midnight regulations."

In addition, Shradar said in an e-mail, the rule about when power plants install cleanup devices had been complicated by a recent court ruling. In July, a federal appeals court struck down the EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule, a pollution-control measure with which the new proposal was designed to work.

But William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said there may have been another motive. He said the EPA may have decided it would be futile to fight for the new regulations since Obama could have reversed them.

The press office for Obama's transition team did not reply to a request for comment yesterday evening.

"I think the administration's getting beat down badly on environmental regulations" already, Becker said. "There was nothing to be gained by, you know, going out with [these new rules]."

The proposal on parks would have changed the rules for new plants being built nearby. Currently, computer models project how bad pollution would be over three-hour and 24-hour periods, to guard against short-term spikes in pollution from nearby smokestacks.

The EPA wanted to alter this rule, to focus instead on the average of air pollution over an entire year.

Clean-air advocates had protested that this might allow parks such as Virginia's Shenandoah -- where the famous mountaintop views are already obscured by smog and haze -- to become even dirtier on certain days.

Half of the EPA's regional administrators had formally dissented against the rule. But, as late as last month, the agency said that it was on the verge of becoming law.

"We are extraordinarily pleased," said Catharine Gilliam, of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. Until now she said, EPA officials "had really stuck to their guns."

The other rule dealt with the agency's New Source Review process, which dictates when existing power plants must implement additional pollution-control measures. In some cases, this requirement is triggered when a plant produces more pollution than it had previously.

The question is: How should this pollution be measured? Now, what matters is an annual pollution total. The EPA had sought to substitute a different test, using the amount of pollution produced in a single hour.

Jeffrey Holmstead, a former head of the EPA's air pollution office under Bush, said the rule made sense: Random patterns of mechanical failures could dictate whether a plant produces more pollution in one year or another, he said. He said an hourly standard was a better measure of a plant's real output.

"I think it's a real shame" that the rule has been dropped, he said.

At the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for power companies, spokesman Ed Legge said that the abandonment of this proposal -- combined with the July court ruling -- left plant owners wondering what standard to follow.

"There will continue to be considerable uncertainty . . . in the absence of clear federal guidance, which is unfortunate," Legge said.

John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, said the rule would have allowed plants to operate for longer hours and produce more overall pollution.

"I am stunned. I've been fighting these dirty rules for years," Walke said. "And within the span of an hour," he said, both were suddenly moot.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company