By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
The Environmental Protection Agency issued a new rule yesterday that will make it easier for industrial plants, refineries and paper mills to expand operations without applying for new pollution permits under the Clean Air Act.
The rule, part of the Bush administration's ongoing effort to revamp a pollution-control program known as New Source Review, says that when expanding or modernizing plants calculate their emissions to determine whether they need to install new control measures, they are not required to include emissions from unrelated activities at the same plant.
Robert J. Meyers, principal deputy assistant administrator in the EPA's office of air and radiation, said the agency determined that it did not make sense to count emissions from distinct projects collectively if they did not have "a substantial economic and technical relationship."
But environmentalists said the rule, which applies to about 3,500 facilities nationwide, could make it easier for the facilities to expand without limiting harmful emissions.
"It's a classic loophole," said John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. "What they've done is to allow industry to ignore these pollution increases, which decreases the likelihood of cleanup obligations."
It was unclear how many plants will no longer have to apply for modification permits because of the policy change: Facilities typically need to apply when they emit an additional 40 tons a year of a major pollutant, though the requirement varies depending on the pollutant and the location of the source. Michael Ling, associate director of the EPA's air quality policy division, said the impact of the new rule would be "negligible."
Still, industry representatives hailed the decision as a last-minute regulatory relief from the Bush administration, which has been working on the matter for more than two years.
"Frankly, I'm a little surprised they've gotten to this," said Bryan Brendle, director of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. Brendle added that his association "supports any sort of simplification and streamlining of a fairly cumbersome program" such as New Source Review.
The EPA also decided yesterday to abandon another rule change it had contemplated enacting under the Clean Air Act, which would have further narrowed the number of activities in a production line that count toward a facility's overall pollution threshold.
The agency postponed making a decision on a third proposal, known as "netting." Under the proposal, an expanding or modernizing plant could bypass a rule requiring it to analyze whether a particular project would increase its emissions so long as the change is not anticipated to dramatically boost the facility's overall pollution level.
Meyers said the administration's changing of course by rejecting one rule change and postponing another "really shows we listened closely to public comments."
Brendle said that manufacturers had hoped the administration would approve the original troika of changes but that "one is better than nothing."