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Bush's EPA Plans to Relax Toxic Emission Standards
Fair Use Statement

Source: Common Dreams

Published on Tuesday, February 11, 2003 by the Los Angeles Times

Going Backwards

EPA Plans to Relax Toxic Emission Standards: The proposal would allow businesses, such as chemical plants, to monitor their own releases and apply less rigorous controls

by Gary Polakovic

The Bush administration is proposing to relax measures that curb toxic emissions from a variety of industries, including pulp mills, auto factories, petrochemical plants and steel mills.

Under a new set of rules drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the businesses could opt out of the current requirement to reduce toxic fumes from their plants to the maximum extent possible. In some instances, those controls can eliminate virtually all emissions harmful to people's health, but businesses contend they cost too much and provide little health benefit.

The emissions at issue are not hazardous because of smog-forming potential, but because they can lead to cancer or damage the brain or a developing fetus. Under the new rules, the EPA would allow businesses to study and report on their own emissions and apply less rigorous controls. But opponents say that approach would allow toxic releases to continue and would be at odds with the Clean Air Act.

Under current rules, the EPA uses what it calls maximum achievable control technology. It uses as its standard the average emissions from the cleanest 12% of companies in each industry.

The proposal affects six industrial categories: brick and clay manufacturing; plywood and wood products makers; stationary backup engines; auto-paint shops; industrial boilers and process heaters; and gas-fired turbines.

The EPA announced the proposal in September, and opportunities for public comment for the various industries expire as early as Thursday and as late as March 14. The EPA expects to finalize the new rules by the end of the year.

Outside California, which has its own rules, many states rely on the EPA to set limits for hazardous air pollutants.

The proposal signals a shift from stringent control of toxic emissions in effect since the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990. It is the first time the EPA has interpreted the revised law, which was signed by the first President Bush, to allow companies to avoid the maximum feasible control.

Jeffrey Holmstead, the EPA's assistant administrator for clean air, said the agency is seeking to use a risk-based standard of protection rather than one requiring all businesses to use technologies employed by the cleanest 12% of companies.

"If there's not real risk there, then it's not good for society to pay for controls that don't apply benefit," Holmstead said.

He added that the EPA is allowed to exempt entire categories of industries from controls, and that the new proposal simply broadens that approach to individual companies.

Businesses have lobbied for the change. Many of the proposals are contained in so-called white papers drafted by industry. Some of those papers were prepared by the law firm of Latham & Watkins, where Holmstead worked before joining the EPA.

Bob Bessette, president of the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners, said he is counting on the EPA for relief from what he deems onerous regulations. He said it would cost $1.7 billion to upgrade the country's nearly 60,000 boilers and process heaters with "maximum achievable control technology."

"This is very big. The costs associated with it for industry can be phenomenal," Bessette said. "I have better places to put my dollars, to my employees, health benefits and things like that. Why should I have to go to a very high-cost emissions reduction if the added benefit is small?"

But John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the benefit is far from small. With increased emissions will come an increased risk of cancer, he said.

Environmentalists, along with state and local air-pollution control officers, say the Bush administration is twisting the law. They say it is part of a wider pattern to relax the nation's environmental laws to favor business.

"What is really going on here is rollbacks in environmental law, either in the form of no enforcement or misinterpretation of the statute," said Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Clinic. "It is going on so far below the water line of the public's attention that they are happening in a fast, furious manner. It's designed to make sure we never regulate anything. It's an end run."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), author of the section of the Clean Air Act in dispute, said Monday that the EPA is reverting to an air-toxin control strategy that has proved ponderous and slowed cleanups to a crawl.

"They are on the wrong track. They are going to set us back to where we were prior to 1990, when all these toxic air pollutants were uncontrolled and unregulated," he said.

The controversy is the latest sign of stress in the nation's toxic air pollution program. In a recent report, the EPA inspector general concluded that the program is behind schedule and that reform is a top challenge. The EPA has regulated about half of the 176 industrial categories targeted for control.

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times

###

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