Scientists skeptical of new air pollution rules
Washington — The Bush administration might add to air pollution by making it easier for thousands of aging factories and plants to modernize, scientists say.
A report Friday from the National Academy of Sciences casts doubt on federal attempts to help power plants, refineries, manufacturers and other industrial facilities comply with a 29-year-old Clean Air Act program known as “new source review.”
The scientists’ review says the administration’s changes to the program would probably add pollution from nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, though they acknowledge “substantial uncertainty” about how much pollution there would be and where it would turn up.
The Clean Air Act program requires businesses to use the most effective anti-pollution controls. Opponents and proponents have long agreed that it comes with too much bureaucratic red tape.
Some of the administration’s changes to that program are under review by the Supreme Court, which was due to receive legal briefs on the matter Friday.
Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides are two of the main chemicals targeted by the review program. They add to smog, acid rain and fine particles that lodge in people’s lungs and cause thousands of premature deaths, asthma and other respiratory ailments a year.
The academy, which advises the government on scientific and technological issues, also implicitly criticized the Environmental Protection Agency’s information gathering, saying “a lack of data and the limitations of current models” prevent anyone from drawing firm conclusions about how the rules might affect air pollution.
However, Bill Harnett, an EPA division director in its air office, said the NAS overlooked some data EPA had from questionnaires it sent five years ago to automakers, pharmaceutical companies, computer chip makers and other industrial facilities.
Others said they were disturbed by the scientists’ conclusions.
Vickie Patton, an attorney for Environmental Defense, said the study shows EPA failed to even evaluate the health and environmental effects of its rule-making. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., called on EPA to quit “being reckless with public health” and to take no further action until they can show that EPA’s rule-making would not harm public health.
The EPA took a different view, after spending $1 million to sponsor the NAS study because of a request from Congress.
Bill Wehrum, EPA’s acting chief of its Office of Air and Radiation, said the agency acted in the best interests of public health and the environment. He said the study confirms the administration’s view that more companies should be allowed to buy and sell pollution rights.
That approach, promoted in EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule, allows plants that don’t meet their required reductions to pay plants that cut more pollution than is required. But the CAIR rule doesn’t take full effect until 2015 and beyond.
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, representing power companies, agreed with EPA and called the study “unqualified good news.”
However, Bill Becker, executive director of associations representing state and local air-pollution control officials, said CAIR “is only a utility program, only covers Eastern states, is limited in what pollutants it covers, and has emissions limits less stringent than new source review.”
Starting in 1999, President Clinton used the clean air program to sue owners of 51 coal-burning power plants. The Bush administration continued those cases, but rewrote the rules.
Some of the administration’s 2002 changes were struck down by a federal court last year; the rest went into effect only in a few states. The 2003 revisions, affecting replaced equipment, was struck down by a court two years ago.
One case, involving Duke Energy Corp., based in Charlotte, N.C., is now before the Supreme Court. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled last year that power plants can spew more pollutants into the air when they modernize to operate for longer hours.
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