EPA Relaxes Clean Air Rules

The Bush administration announced it was rolling back pollution rules in order to allow factories, power plants and refineries to expand their operations more easily.

The long-expected New Source Review (NSR) proposal, announced Nov. 22, provoked criticism from environmentalists and congressional Democrats. Nine Northeastern states affected by power plant pollution said they would file a lawsuit challenging the new rules.

The changes could affect hundreds of power plants, refineries and factories built before 1977 when Congress amended the Clean Air Act to require state-of-the-art pollution controls on any alterations that caused new sources of pollution.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said the changes to NSR would encourage emission reductions by providing manufacturers, refiners and utilities with more flexibility when they consider expanding or upgrading their existing plants. According to this line of reasoning, previous NSR rules discouraged companies from undertaking projects that could have improved energy efficiency and cut pollution.

Among the specific changes, EPA will:

  • Allow companies to avoid improved pollution controls on individual pieces of equipment by meeting plant-wide pollution reduction targets;
  • Rely on the highest pollution levels during the past 10 years when determining whether a facility's total pollution increase requires new controls;
  • Not require companies to update pollution controls if there has been a government review of existing controls within the past decade.

Utilities and refiners praised the changes as a first step, but one trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, called for greater clarity concerning rules that govern "routine maintenance." Operators complain of perpetual fears they can trigger lawsuits because of uncertainties in how to interpret the definition of maintenance activities.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) blasted the decision and predicted the administration, emboldened by its 2002 election victories, would "intensify its campaign to dismantle longstanding environmental safeguards across the board." NRDC said it plans to take legal action against the rule change.

"More than 30,000 Americans die every year from power plant air pollution alone," said Walke, director of NRDC's clean air program, in a statement. "Crippling the standards will only make things worse."

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