Hotline, Spring 2002
by David Fowler, GASP Board Member
Disputes within the top level of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over White House plans for sharp cuts in EPA staffing and modifying air pollution controls broke into the open recently. The conflict brought the resignation in late February of Eric Schaeffer, who had been with the EPA for 12 years and had directed its Office of Regulatory Enforcement for the last five.
In a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman obtained by CongressDaily, Schaeffer said that he had tired of “fighting a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce.” He cited White House proposals to cut spending sharply for the EPA’s civil enforcement program, and to give much more liberal allowances for polluting activity for plants which modernized equipment.
He explained that the conflict between the White House’s so-called Clear Skies Initiative and existing EPA policies has halted to efforts to enforce reductions with major polluters. “It is no longer possible to pretend that the ongoing debate with the White House and the Department of Energy is not affecting our ability to negotiate settlements,” he wrote. “We obviously cannot settle cases with defendants [under New Source Review, a section of the Clean Air Act] who think we are still rewriting the law.”
Three weeks later the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a private environmental group, released summaries which it had obtained of a two-day EPA staff meeting held earlier this year to discuss the Bush administration’s plans for weakening a Clean Air Act provision called New Source Review. This provision requires facilities to install modern pollution controls when they upgrade or modify their equipment and significantly increase their emissions. It requires more than 17,000 of the nation’s largest polluting facilities to clean up increased emissions from production increases. These facilities include oil refineries, chemical plants, power plants, incinerators, iron and steel foundries, paper mills, cement plants, and many manufacturing facilities.
The EPA summaries suggest that the Bush administration plans to weaken New Source Review by implementing three sorts of actions, according to the NRDC.
l. Changes at industrial facilities resulting in significant increases in pollution now trigger demands for cleanup under the New Source Review. To determine whether pollution increases, a company must compare its pollution before the change, known as its pollution “baseline,” with pollution levels after the change. The administration’s plan would allow a facility to pick a pollution baseline based on very higher emission levels from past years. Present day emissions will have to surpass these older high emissions before any increase is even recognized. This ruse would allow the facility to avoid cleaning up substantial pollution increases.
2. A “clean unit” exemption in the New Source Review requirements would actually serve as a loophole, allowing increased air pollution. Far from being clean, the sole purpose of the new exemption is to allow significant increases in harmful air pollution to escape cleanup and state-of-the-art pollution controls.
3. The EPA would adopt a plant-wide applicability limit concept that purports to be a 10-year “cap” on pollution covering an entire facility. It would allow facilities to lock in excessive pollution levels, with no requirements for those levels to decline. It would also avoid cleanup under New Source Review for 10 years and beyond. The EPA would not mandate pollution control requirements on new or existing polluting equipment under such a plantwide applicability limit. Nor would the limit levels be required to decline; causing them to decline would improve air quality over time. This limit would last 10 years, allowing pollution decreases that occurred nine years ago to purportedy “offset” actual and significant pollution increases today, thereby avoiding cleanup today.
The summaries also show that Bush administration appointees at EPA are leading the attack on the Clean Air Act provisions, and that some career staff members warned them that their plans were illegal and threaten public health.
“When Bush appointees had two or more choices for air quality safeguards, the document shows they invariably picked the option that would generate the most pollution,” said John Walke, director of the NRDC Air Program. “We call upon EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to publicly repudiate these proposed rollbacks and refuse to sign any rule changes that would weaken these important safeguards. More than 30,000 Americans die every year from power plant air pollution alone, and weakening the standards would only make things worse.”