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Censure fills air; EPA defends pollution plan

June 14, 2002, 10:17AM

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

The Bush administration moved Thursday to relax pollution controls on coal-burning plants, a decision that angered environmentalists but drew praise from industry representatives.

The Environmental Protection Agency plan calls for relaxing clean air rules to make it easier for utilities, oil refineries and industrial plants to upgrade and expand.

The plan means industries, including many that operate in Texas, can now change or modify their plants without installing new pollution control systems -- a provision called "new source review" and one of the central elements of the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970.

"We are not rolling back the Clean Air Act," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said Thursday, anticipating the barrage of criticism from Democrats and environmentalists that soon followed her announcement.

"Once again, White House political considerations have trumped our nation's commitment to promoting clean air and improving the public health of millions," said House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

EPA Assistant Administrator Jeff Holmstead said the EPA had no data indicating what effect the proposal would have on the level of U.S. air pollution.

Scott Segal, an attorney for power companies, said utilities could save as much as $70 billion -- passing much of it on to consumers through lower bills -- by not having to install expensive equipment to reduce emissions.

Environmental groups from across the country charged that the proposals will result in dirtier air and jeopardize existing enforcement actions against suspected polluters.

"The changes signal a road map for more pollution and thousands more premature deaths. There is no good reason why industries can't meet modern standards when they expand," said Karen Hadden, a member of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development coalition in Austin.

If the new rules pass the bureaucratic, legal and legislative challenges they surely will be subjected to, about 17,000 industrial plants nationwide will have considerably more flexibility in complying with new source review regulations.

When the Clean Air Act was passed 30 years ago, Congress decided it would be too expensive for companies to retroactively install state-of-the-art pollution control technology at existing plants. A deal was struck that exempted these facilities until they made changes or upgrades that increased the amount of pollution they emit.

Because of the enormous potential costs, running into billions of dollars, and because they believe the regulations prevented them from modernizing their plants, new source review has never been popular with industry.

Eric Schaeffer, who resigned earlier this year as head of the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement over frustrations with changes to new source review, said noncompliance with the regulations was widespread.

Until 1996, that is, when the Clinton administration began cracking down. Dozens of lawsuits and enforcement actions were filed, including those against nine power companies that together emit 25 percent of all sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide released into the air across the nation each year.

Whitman said Thursday that her agency would continue to enforce outstanding cases.

Still, Schaeffer said, settlement negotiations with some suspected polluters have already stalled as companies that appeared ready to make a deal have walked away rather than agreeing to sanctions under rules that may change.

In Texas, four of those cases are still alive against Exxon Mobil for violations at their Baytown and Beaumont facilities; Alcoa for violations at its Rockdale plant; and Citgo Petroleum Corp. for violations at its Corpus Christi plant.

While all cases are still open, Jim Marston, Texas director of Environmental Defense, said Alcoa has "walked away" from settlement negotiations with the EPA and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission regarding charges that it violated new source review requirements at its Rockdale plant over a course of 15 years.

"It is my belief that they have taken a hard line in the negotiations because they anticipated this action by the Bush administration," Marston said.

Dana Perino, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the EPA, said talks with Alcoa are "at an impasse," while Alcoa maintains it is still negotiating.

"We are more than open to talking," said Alcoa spokesman Jake Siewert. "We would prefer to resolve this under existing law and resolve it quickly."

Environmentalists insisted Thursday the EPA's proposed rules would result in increased pollution from plant operators who could now keep on rebuilding plants without having to comply with the Clean Air Act and install new pollution control systems.

Environmentalists also pointed out any increase in air pollution in the Houston area, which already does not meet national air quality standards for ozone, would not help efforts to clean the air here and comply with the Clean Air Act by the target date of 2007.

But if, as Schaeffer and others insist, there has been widespread noncompliance with new source review for years, then the increase may not be as dramatic, said Matt Fraser, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Rice University. "This is a huge victory for them, particularly the power industry," Fraser said. "But I can't imagine that emissions will go up that much."

TNRCC spokesman Patrick Crimmins said Texas has its own new source review regulations that apply to any industrial facility in the state seeking an air permit.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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