EPA Documents Reveal Plan to Weaken Air Quality Protections

NRDC Says Administration Plans Would Violate Law and Threaten Public Health

WASHINGTON (March 20, 2002) -- Previously undisclosed Environmental Protection Agency documents reveal the details of how the Bush administration plans to undermine federal air pollution standards. The documents were made public today by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). (Contact NRDC for the EPA documents. Attached are three NRDC briefing papers on the documents.)

"These documents show in black and white how Bush political appointees at EPA are trying to cripple the Clean Air Act," said John Walke, the director of NRDC's 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."

The internal EPA documents are summaries of a two-day meeting EPA staff held earlier this year to discuss the Bush administration's plans for weakening a Clean Air Act provision called "New Source Review" (NSR). This provision requires facilities to install modern pollution controls when they upgrade or modify their equipment and significantly increase their emissions. NSR requires more than 17,000 of the country's largest polluting facilities to clean up increased emissions from equipment upgrades. These facilities include oil refineries, chemical plants, power plants, incinerators, iron and steel foundries, paper mills, cement plants, and a broad array of manufacturing facilities.

The EPA documents indicate that the Bush administration plans to weaken New Source Review by implementing proposals that would weaken NSR in three ways:

Smoke and Mirrors: Changes at industrial facilities resulting in significant pollution increases (e.g., 40 tons per year) trigger cleanup obligations under the New Source Review provision. 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 fictional pollution baseline that is worse than its actual pollution levels, essentially allowing the facility to pollute more and pretend it is not. This ruse would allow the facility to avoid cleaning up substantial pollution increases (see attachment).

The Dirty Unit Loophole: The Environmental Protection Agency plans to create a new loophole from the NSR requirements, and to give the new loophole the perversely ironic label of "clean unit" exemption. Far from being clean, the sole purpose of the new exemption would be to allow significant increases in harmful air pollution to escape cleanup and state-of-the-art pollution controls. Significant pollution increases that require cleanup under today's NSR rules can escape control under EPA's new loophole, thereby harming air quality and public health (see attachment).

No PAL of Mine: EPA will adopt a plantwide applicability limit (PAL) 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, and avoid cleanup under NSR for 10 years and beyond. EPA would not mandate pollution control requirements for new or existing polluting equipment under a PAL. Nor would PAL levels be required to decline and improve air quality over time. The PAL would last 10 years, allowing pollution decreases that occurred nine years ago to purportedly "offset" actual and significant pollution increases today, thereby avoiding cleanup today (see attachment).

The documents also show that Bush administration appointees at EPA are leading the attack on the Clean Air Act provision, and that some career staff members warned them that their plans are 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 Walke. "Public health doesn't seem to be an issue. Apparently they're more concerned about the financial health of the big polluters that funded the Bush presidential campaign."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Additional Downloadable Materials for the Press
Gutting New Source Review: The 'Clean Unit' Oxymoron in PDF format, 26k.
Gutting New Source Review: Letting Polluters Avoid Cleanup For 10 Years and Beyond with a New Right to Pollute in PDF format, 29k.
Gutting New Source Review: Letting Polluters Lie About Today's Pollution Levels in PDF format, 22k.

Related NRDC Pages
The Bush Record: Power-Plant Pollution -- Regularly updated!