EPA air-toxics plan sparks internal rift

A draft rule would weaken clean-air standards, officials say. Their memo could figure in Senate hearings Wednesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Environmental Protection Agency has drafted a plan that would allow so much extra industrial air pollution that 7 of 10 of the agency's own regional air-quality directors have signed on to a memo condemning it.

While disagreement on policy issues is not unusual, former EPA officials say the regional directors used particularly strong language in criticizing the plan developed on William Wehrum's watch in a December memo, which surfaced Monday.

The stinging internal criticism is likely to pop up Wednesday at Senate confirmation hearings for Mr. Wehrum, who is nominated to become the nation's top air-quality officer.

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The plan proposes loosening limits on toxic emissions from scores of industrial sectors, including refineries, chemical plants, steel mills, and smelters.

The changes, the memo said, would "essentially negate" today's limits on industry toxic air emissions like arsenic, mercury, and lead, also called "hazardous air pollutants" or "air toxics."

Such poisons are considered by the Clean Air Act to be far more dangerous to public health than air pollutants like nitrous oxides or sulfur dioxide.

Under today's requirements, any facility emitting more than 10 tons per year of a single toxin, or 25 tons of several toxins, must install pollution control equipment to cut emissions by as much as 95 percent. The new plan would allow large polluters that previously had brought emissions down below the 25-ton limit - say, to 2-3 tons - to boost emissions, as long as they remained under 25 tons.

Criticizing the plan as an unjustified "drastic change" in emissions rules, the memo cites Wehrum's office for a "trend of excluding" regional offices from rule and policy development that was "disturbing."

If adopted, some environmentalists say the new plan would blow open the most significant new hole in the Clean Air Act since the Bush administration's reinterpretation of the act's "new source review" provision, which curbed power plant emissions.

That interpretation was struck down by the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last month.

"Wehrum is the architect of a lot of changes to the Clean Air Act that have weakened environmental protections," says Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project in New York, former head of the EPA's office of regulatory enforcement until 2002. "This new proposal on toxics pushes past science, law, and fair public process."

An EPA spokesman says it's too early to assess the policy proposal.

"This is a preliminary draft that is currently under development and internal review which could change before EPA issues it as a proposal," said John Millett, an EPA spokesman in an e-mailed statement. "EPA will seek public comment when it issues the proposal."

Still, some like what they've been hearing about the draft so far.

The proposed change is "good news" for health and the environment, said Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. "Without the proposal, power disincentives would exist to make these [pollution] reductions," he said in a statement.

But enforcement could be a problem. The regional directors memo calls "unfounded and overly optimist" the new plan's contention that toxic emissions are unlikely to rise since industry will want to "avoid negative publicity" and "maintain their appearance as responsible businesses."

Instead, "the cost of the increased [toxic] emissions would be borne by the communities surrounding the sources," the memo concludes.

"It's pretty clear this plan is out of bounds," says John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "It's also clear the regional directors found it to be extreme."

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