The Environmental Protection Agency published regulations yesterday that in effect postponed a politically supersensitive air pollution issue until after the November elections.
EPA announced in the Federal Register that Ohio is getting temporary permission to do what the state has long wanted to do in the delicate field of counting its sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants. This will make many Ohio politicians, labor unions coal miners and residents happy, as it will allow the state to continue burning Ohio coal.
Environmentalists, however, said the decision would probably be taken straight to court as an unwarranted relaxation of federal standards on sulfur dioxide.
"They essentially have approved the status quo in Ohio for another year," said Robert Rauch of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Until this issue is decided there's very little chance of getting any reduction in emissions."
Under the decision, in the works for six months, Ohio will be allowed to average its emissions over 30 days instead of 24 hours in determining whether EPA standards have been breached. The longer the averaging period, the larger the variation can be in the dirtines of the coal burned, since a dirty day can theoretically be made up later. The shorter the period, the cleaner the coal has to be in order for the utility to be sure its 24-hour average will meet the limits. But Ohio's coal is too dirty to burn on that basis, so the state asked for the 30-day limit.
In granting it, at least unitl hearings and studies end in November or December, the EPA also ordered Ohio utilities to install monitors on utility smokestacks that will count emissions levels around the clock.
Plants that do that or provide other daily pollution data, such as a sample of the coal used, will be exempt from enforcement efforts if they don't pollute more than 1 1/2 times as much as they are supposed to, EPA promised.
"As a practical matter we can't do any better than that," said EPA air quality specialist Walter Barber.He said that although the policy may seem to be a weakening of pollution control efforts, it is actually at strengthening of them, since most utilities put forth more than 150 percent of their theoretical limit.
Current enforcement relies on a one-day sample of smokestack output and the utility receives six weeks' advance notice that the test will be taken. Under the new policy there would be no warning for plants not supplying the daily data. The crackdown for plants supplying the information would only involve those that are over the 150 percent limit.
The new 30-day standard will now be available to most other plants nationwide if state laws do not conflict, said EPA planning office analyst Robert H. Fuhrman. It goes hand-in-hand with a new computer method for calculating the allowed sulfur dioxide output from each plant.
The new method, called the "expected exceedances" or ExEx technique, will lelgitimize the status quo in national sulphur dioxide output and therefore is another source of environmentalists' worry.
Current national practice puts 85,000 to 95,000 tons of the gas into the atmosphere every year, even though existing laws theoretically could get emissions down to 60,000 tons if they were strictly enforced. But enforcement is all but impossible, partly because of the stack test situation and partly because of equipment limitations.
Environmentalists argue that EPA should make the effort anyway, especialy in light of energy crisis pressures on utilities to convert to coal.