Bush Administration Rule Could Increase Air Pollution

By Cat Lazaroff,
Environment News Service

WASHINGTON, DC, October 24, 2002 (ENS) - Air pollution from refineries and factories would increase under new air pollution rules being prepared by the Bush administration, two studies suggest. The studies were commissioned by the Environmental Integrity Project, a group headed by former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement chief Eric Schaeffer.

The reports were released Wednesday as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepared to report to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the process used to craft Bush administration plans to weaken emissions control rules for older power plants and factories.

In a letter delivered to Dr. John Graham, administrator of the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the Environmental Integrity Project says the new studies contradict Bush administration statements that broadening exemptions to the New Source Review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act would not increase air pollution.

The NSR rules require aging industrial facilities to install state of the art pollution control equipment when upgrading or expanding their facilities in ways that could increase pollution emissions. The Bush administration has argued that the NSR provisions deter some companies from making improvements that could reduce emissions, but critics warn that relaxing the rules could allow facilities to increase their emissions with few repercussions.

The Environmental Integrity Project, funded by the Rockefeller Family Fund, commissioned Abt Associates Inc., a contractor for the EPA, to examine how the Bush administration's proposed NSR revisions would have affected two recent industrial cases.

The Abt report "indicates that applying just one element of the final rule - one that would allow a facility to avoid NSR pollution controls for projects that did not raise emissions above their highest level within the past ten years - would have increased emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by a combined total of 124.6 tons per year at two industrial facilities in the Midwest," wrote Tatjana Vujic, staff attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, in the letter to Dr. Graham.

The letter was also sent to Senator Jim Jeffords, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, as well as the heads of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and Judiciary Committee, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman and assistant EPA administrator Jeffrey Holmstead.

Enforcement of the current NSR rule is based on whether industrial modifications increase plant emissions above a baseline computed from the plant wide average emissions for the two most recent years. If a facility can prove that the most recent emissions data is not representative of normal plant operations, they can submit data from previous years instead.

Under the Bush administration's proposed rule, companies could set their emissions baseline using the two worst polluting years of the past 10, regardless of whether the data from those years is representative of current plant operations.

"For example, suppose a refinery averaged annual emissions of 1,000 tons of NOx in 2001 and 2002, but 2,000 tons per year in 1993 and 1994," Vujic explained. The Bush administration rule "would allow the refinery to increase its NOx emissions by at least 1,000 tons in 2003 without triggering NSR or having to apply pollution controls because the new total of 2,000 tons per year would not exceed emission levels reported ten years ago. In fact, the company could release NOx emissions up to 2,039 tons, as that would not exceed the ten year old pollution levels by the 40 tons required to trigger NSR."

The Abt report looked at the effect that the Bush administration's rule would have had on modifications performed at ExxonMobil's Joliet, Illinois refinery, and a Nucor Steel mill in Montgomery County, Indiana, within the past five years.

Under current NSR rules, both facilities were required to install new emissions reduction equipment, slashing their emissions of nitrogen oxides. But under the new Bush proposal, neither plant would have had to upgrade their emissions controls, and could have legally increased their air polluting emissions.

"The analysis indicates that had the Administration's final rule been in effect, NOx emissions would have increased by 66.7 tons per year at Mobil's (now ExxonMobil's) Joliet, Illinois, refinery and by 57.9 tons per year at Nucor Steel's plant in Crawfordsville, Indiana," Vujic wrote. "A closer reading suggests that the Administration's proposal also could have increased sulfur dioxide emissions at the ExxonMobil refinery by more than 200 tons annually."

The Abt analysis found other problems with the proposed NSR revisions. The researchers, who used state files, EPA and state emissions inventories, and conversations with state permit writers, found that the EPA's National Emissions Inventory data "differs substantially from state emissions data for reasons that were difficult to determine in the time allowed for research."

"The uneven quality of the government's own data make it more likely that overworked state permit writers will lack any objective basis for challenging ten year old emission estimates that may be inflated by companies seeking to avoid NSR," Vujic wrote.

"The research is consistent with trends showing that emissions from industrial sources have gradually declined in the last ten years. That in turn suggests that allowing companies to 'borrow' emissions from a decade ago to avoid pollution control requirements will make the air dirtier, not cleaner," Vujic concluded.