BUSINESS leaders and environmentalists are generally pleased with the federal government's new rules limiting toxic air emissions from chemical plants.
But there are differences over the costs to firms and consumers. Some critics say the administration's attempt to balance environmental protection and economic impact means too much pollution will be allowed to remain.
Announced March 1 by the Environmental Protection Agency, the ``chemical manufacturing rule'' issued under the Clean Air Act is projected to reduce toxic air emissions by nearly 90 percent over three years as new plants start up and older ones replace equipment.
Some 370 chemical plants in 38 states are expected to be affected - most in Texas, Louisiana, and New Jersey. Such plants are among the biggest sources of toxic air emissions, and the new regulations are expected to reduce those by 506,000 tons a year. To do so, plant managers will have to sharply reduce toxic emissions coming from leaky tanks, vents, and evaporation.
EPA Administrator Carol Browner calls it ``one of the most sweeping air-pollution rules EPA has ever issued - a landmark for public health.''
But others are not so sure. The American Lung Association says the rule doesn't go far enough. And while the Natural Resources Defense Council praised the EPA for issuing ``the first systematic federal regulation of hazardous air emissions from the chemical industry,'' NRDC attorney David Driesen said the rule doesn't do enough to protect ``the communities in the shadows of these facilities.''
Critics are particularly uneasy about ``emissions averaging'' under the new rule. This means operators, with state approval, can offset some pollution sources very costly to remedy with deeper emissions reductions elsewhere.
This is stricter than the Bush administration had proposed, in that such averaging can only be done at a specific plant and not between plants. Also, the Clinton administration is insisting that overall pollution reduction at the site be 10 percent greater than it would have been without the averaging.
The new regulations were required under Clean Air Act amendments passed in 1990, which expanded the list of regulated toxic air pollutants from seven to 189. But during the Bush years, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and then-vice president Dan Quayle's Competitiveness Council held up implementation. Finally, environmentalists sued, and a federal judge ordered that the rule be implemented.
Knowing that stiffer rules were coming, the chemical industry worked with EPA officials on details of the new rule - which addresses 112 of 189 pollutants - and they began installing more advanced pollution-prevention equipment as required under the 1990 amendments.
Industry officials are pleased the administration is taking a broad approach rather than focusing on specific chemicals in ``command and control'' fashion.
``The rule's emissions-averaging concept is a sound one,'' said the Chemical Manufacturers Association in a statement. ``It gives companies the flexibility to meet reduction targets more cost-effectively.''
Still, according to the trade group, the rule will cost ``well over $1 billion'' to comply with, which makes it ``one of the most expensive requirements ever imposed on our industry.''
Dow Chemical Company spokesman Dan Fellner says complying with the new rule will cost Dow ``somewhere near $100 million'' over the next three years.
EPA officials put the price tag at a lower point. Ms. Browner said total capital costs will be $450 million, with total annual costs coming in at $230 million. This would amount to a ``worst case'' increase in consumer prices of less than 3 percent for affected products, she said.
The EPA also announced new pollution rules dealing with nitrogen oxide from coal-fired power plants. This is projected to reduce annual emissions of acid rain-causing chemicals by 1.8 million tons from 700 power plants by 2000.
The result, Browner says, will be ``the equivalent of taking 38 million cars off the road - about one-fourth of all the cars in America.''