In a major new revision to its air pollution rules, the Environmental Protection Agency will allow up to 20 percent of the costs of replacing each plant's production system to be considered "routine maintenance" that doesn't require costly antipollution controls, according to agency documents obtained by The Associated Press.
A typical power plant has more than one "process unit" containing a boiler, generator, turbine and other equipment. In the case of a 1,500-megawatt plant with two 750-megawatt units that cost $1 billion to replace, each could be upgraded $200 million at a time, agency officials and outside experts say.
The new rule signed by EPA's acting administrator, Marianne L. Horinko, represents a fundamental shift away from a long-problematic 1971 maintenance standard.
"We're going to really, I think, create certainty going forward for industrial facilities, by spelling out what specific replacement is exempt," Horinko told the AP.
Until now, operators have been required to add more pollution-cutting devices if they do anything more than "routine maintenance" on a plant that causes emissions to increase significantly. The electric utility and oil industries have been lobbying the administration for the changes, saying the costs prohibit them from making energy-efficiency improvements.
The White House-led reworking of the maintenance standard essentially allows industries including manufacturers, chemical plants and pulp and paper mills to modernize a fifth at a time each of a facility's essential production systems.
They can do so even if the upgrades increase pollution, with no apparent restrictions on time intervals between modernization, though Horinko and other top EPA officials insist the plants still must comply with overall permit limits and other state and federal programs for pollutants.
Congress put the Clean Air Act's "new source review" program into law in 1977. Since then the agency has had mixed success in enforcing the maintenance provision.
"We can say categorically that pollution will not increase as a result of this rule," said Jeff Holmstead, EPA's assistant administrator in charge of air quality.
Environmentalists said that was untrue, however, since emissions can increase within a plant's permitted limits, and most plants are not now operating near those limits. They described the new changes as disastrous for people's health, especially those living near or downwind of some 17,000 industrial plants affected. And they said EPA ignored concerns expressed by hundreds of thousands of Americans opposed to the new regulations.
"It's an accounting gimmick that eliminates any possibility of pollution controls," said John Walke, director of Natural Resources Defense Council's clean air program. "It's a total disaster. It's the effective repeal of this clean air program, through illegal administrative means."
Last November the administration proposed an annual allowance for power plants, factories and refineries. The allowance would have let plant operators treat as maintenance any replaced equipment or other capital investment that cost up to 20 percent of a plant's total value. That proposal was dropped, agency officials say, because it was considered unworkable and cumbersome.
The new rule is based on another proposal from November to create an equipment replacement exemption. White House and EPA officials initially considered letting businesses replace up to 50 percent of a "process unit" before settling on the 20 percent figure.