- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2002

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a few new air pollution rules under its New Source Review (NSR) program. While the announcement set off a firestorm of criticism, concerned parties would be wise to take a deep breath, since those changes are more likely to result in air that becomes cleaner by increments than in anyone's lungs being filled with anything particularly sulfurous or particulate-laden anytime soon.
Actually, the just-enacted rules have been in the public eye for nearly a decade. The process of writing them began in 1992, when EPA administrators attempted to determine how the NSR could be improved. Several proposals were published in the Federal Register in 1996 and 1998, after which the EPA solicited and received an enormous amount of public comment on them. When the Bush administration requested another review, EPA representatives held even more meetings and received more than 130,000 written comments on the measures.
That extensive vetting process produced the just-issued rules. One rule clarifies the baseline that polluters use to calculate their emissions of pollutants, thus giving them a better yardstick with which to determine if specific changes will trigger NSR requirements for adding extensive pollution-control equipment, while holding them to the strict emissions limits already codified. The other three rules are designed to yield incremental improvements in air quality by giving polluters greater flexibility in controlling actual pollutants. One rule permits plants to take measures that result in incremental increases in the emissions of some pollutants, so long as the overall effect is friendly to the environment i.e., results in overall reductions of the plant's emissions. Another rule allows "Clean Unit" facilities that have undergone a major NSR review in the last decade to install additional equipment without undergoing an additional NSR, if the plant's emissions stay within prescribed limits. The last major rule change puts pollutant caps on plants as a whole, rather than on specific pieces of equipment therein, thus (it is hoped) giving them flexibility to reduce pollution incrementallt without triggering a plant-wide NSR, which would be more expensive and time consuming.
The EPA's just-proposed rule attempts to delineate exactly what constitutes "routine maintenance" at power plants. It's a critical question, since routine maintenance is excluded from NSR review. It's also a highly complex question, one that has never been adequately clarified. In fact, according to EPA spokesman Joe Martyak, this is the first time that the agency has taken formal comments on the matter given that it will be subjected to the same sort of vetting process as the just-issued rules, it may be some time before the rule is codified, if ever.
While neither the proposed nor the formalized rules are perfect in fact, they contain significant loopholes, some of which could be closed by Congress acting on President Bush's Clear Skies Initiative they are far more likely to result in incremental improvements to air quality than smoggy skies. Instead of posturing, environmental groups and potential presidential contenders such as Sens. John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman should pause for a careful look at the rules.

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