- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002


The Bush administration eased clean-air rules yesterday to allow utilities, refineries and manufacturers to avoid having to install expensive anti-pollution equipment when they modernize their plants.

The long-awaited regulation issued by the Environmental Protection Agency was immediately attacked by environmentalists, state air-quality regulators and attorneys general in several Northeast states, who promised a lawsuit to try to reverse the action.

But EPA Administrator Christie Whitman rejected critics' assertions that the changes would produce dirtier air. She said at a news conference that the changes would "encourage emission reductions' by providing utilities and refinery operators new flexibility when considering operational changes and expansion.

She said the old program has "deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy-efficiency and decrease air pollution."

Officials from a group of Northeastern states said they planned to file suit challenging the changes. In New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer accused the administration of attacking the Clean Air Act with rules that would degrade air quality in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states downwind from industrial plants.

"The Bush administration is again putting the financial interests of the oil, gas and coal companies above the public's right to breathe clean air," he said.

Industry has argued that the old EPA regulations, known as "New Source Review" under the Clean Air Act, have hindered operations and prevented efficiency improvements.

The new EPA regulation will allow industry to:

•Set higher limits for the amount of pollution that can be released by calculating emissions on a plantwide basis rather than for individual pieces of equipment.

•Rely on the highest historical pollution levels during the past decade when deciding whether a facility's overall pollution increase requires new controls.

•Avoid having to update pollution controls if there already has been a government review of existing ones in the past decade.

•Exempt increased output of secondary contaminants that result from new pollution controls for other emissions.

In addition, the agency is proposing a new way of defining what constitutes "routine maintenance, repair and replacement" key language that helps determine when the regulations should kick in and is particularly important for aging coal-fired power plants.

The EPA plans to grant power plants, factories and refineries an annual "allowance" for maintenance. Only when expenditures rise above that allowance would an owner or operator have to install new pollution-control equipment. Replacing existing equipment would be considered maintenance.

The administration said the new maintenance treatment "will offer facilities greater flexibility to improve and modernize their operations in ways that will reduce energy use and air pollution."

Vickie Patton, an attorney with Environmental Defense, said the changes amount to a "sweeping and unprecedented erosion of state and local power to protect the public health from air pollution."

"They're going to do everything they can not only to roll these rules back at the federal level, but to force states to dismantle clean-air programs that have been in place for years," she said.

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