Agency's proposal arouses internal outrage
WASHINGTON (April 3, 2006) -- A secret proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency, so controversial that it has provoked strong internal dissent, would weaken nearly 100 toxic air pollution standards and allow industrial plants across the country to emit significantly greater amount of toxins, according to a draft rule obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The draft rule would seriously erode existing standards under the Clean Air Act by permitting thousands of oil refineries, hazardous waste incinerators, chemical plants and steel mills to increase their emissions by as much as 50,000 pounds a year.
Yet EPA dismisses the concerns of its own experts by asserting that polluters would not increase their emissions because they fear "negative publicity" and because they want to "maintain their appearance as responsible businesses."
The rule is so extreme that officials at nine out of the EPA's ten regional offices joined in a nine-page memo to protest the proposal, saying that, if implemented, it "would be detrimental to the environment and undermine the intent" of the Clean Air Act.
The scathing internal memo also said the rule would create a loophole that allows polluters to "virtually avoid regulation and greatly complicate any enforcement against them" and eliminate the ability of EPA and the public to effectively monitor and take action against toxic polluters.
"Such objections underscore how the EPA would weaken the law and allow even more cancer-causing pollution into the air we breathe. This proposal is indefensible," said John Walke, clean air director for NRDC. "No wonder even some of EPA's own experts are outraged by this secretly hatched plan to please polluters and their powerful friends.''
In their memo to headquarters, the regional EPA officials also protested the preparation of the proposed rule without their input, characterizing the slight as part of a disturbing "trend."
The rule was drafted during the tenure of William Wehrum, acting head of EPA's air office, and would reverse longstanding agency policy. The rule also seeks to go much further than a controversial 2003 approach sought by Wehrum's predecessor, Jeffery Holmstead.
President Bush has nominated Wehrum to succeed Holmstead. His confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is scheduled for Wednesday.
"Any nominee willing to weaken existing Clean Air Act protections to allow more cancer-causing pollution does not deserve the privilege of leading EPA's clean air programs," said Walke. "Mr. Wehrum should disavow this proposal, explain his role in its preparation and tell the American people whether this is how he plans to protect the air we breathe and the food we eat."
The Clean Air Act requires EPA to impose standards for 188 different toxic substances emitted by industrial sources, ranging from benzene and asbestos to chlorine and formaldehyde. The draft rule would loosen restrictions on these toxic substances emitted by some 174 industrial sectors.
The law also imposed restrictions on plants that annually emitted 10 tons or more of a single toxin, or 25 tons or more of a combination of toxins.
EPA was required to adopt "maximum achievable control technology" (MACT) standards to force such plants to slash their emissions by 95 percent or more. The standards are based on the performance of the average of the top 12 percent of facilities in an industrial sector.
For example, an oil refinery that emitted 100 tons of a combination of toxins might be required to slash its toxic emissions to 5 tons per year.
Under the proposed rule, however, that refinery can turn around and increase its toxic emissions to just below the 25-ton threshold and still escape controls -- while increasing its toxic emissions nearly five fold.
Because the proposed rule would allow facilities to escape the toxics standards mandated by Congress, such plants also could then evade the monitoring, recordkeeping, reporting and other compliance obligations associated with being subject to these standards.
The EPA rule itself acknowledges that some plants therefore "may" increase the amount of their pollutants, but it goes on to assert that they would unlikely do so out of concern for their public image.
But the agency's regional officials called those assertions "unfounded and overly optimistic" and said the proposed rule would contradict the intent of the MACT standards.
In addition, according to Walke, the rule fails to explain how the public -- or the government -- would even know when violations occur, since the rule would relieve exempted facilities from monitoring and reporting requirements.
"The EPA has surrendered its responsibilities," Walke said. "Why is the environmental cop on the beat throwing away his weapon and crossing his fingers that the bad guys will make nice voluntarily? What has EPA come to that it is abandoning law enforcement against toxic polluters and hoping the media will pick up the slack?"
Only a month ago, EPA proposed to allow the drinking water supplies serving America's small communities to contain three times the level of contaminants currently allowed.