EPA and the White House have issued new rules in the Clean Air Act's "new source review" program to make it easier for coal-fired electric utilities, refineries and other industrial plants to make improvements without having to install additional pollution controls.
The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, said EPA's revisions could lead to reduced fines and pollution controls in some of the clean air lawsuits against utilities that were begun during the Clinton administration.
A separate study by a Rockefeller Family Fund project and Council of State Governments said changes in the way industrial plants are allowed to count emissions would increase outputs of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and soot.
Sens. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., cited the GAO report in asking the EPA inspector general Wednesday to investigate the administration's claims the regulations wouldn't affect the lawsuits.
Lieberman told The Associated Press in an interview the GAO findings contradict administration officials' statements before Congress "that were just not right, that didn't give a clear enough picture of the dangers of the increase in air pollution that would result."
According to The Washington Post, EPA air policy chief Jeffrey Holmstead told two Congressional committees in July 2002 that "we do not believe these (rule) changes will have a negative impact on the enforcement cases." Two former EPA officials claim he was told otherwise. Holmstead denies misleading Congress.
EPA spokeswoman Lisa Harrison dismissed the study predicting more pollution as not credible, though the National Academy of Public Administration vouched for its methodology. She said EPA also was confident the changes will not impact enforcement.
Under the Clean Air Act new factories have to install pollution reduction equipment when they are built.
Old plants might have to install pollution control devices — which can cost millions of dollars — when they undertake major renovations. Regular maintenance work is exempt from the law.
Companies often claimed that the EPA lacked clear and consistent standards for what constituted renovations versus regular maintenance.
This year, the EPA set a new rule that exempted from the Clean Air Act any capital improvements that cost less than 20 percent of the value of the equipment at the facility.
But the EPA had already filed 14 lawsuits against firms for breaking the old New Source Review law. Seven were settled. Environmentalists worried that the new rules would jeopardize those cases — even the ones where a settlement was already in place.
The GAO found that EPA officials "determined that certain provisions could affect the cases," and as a result "changed the provisions to limit their effects."
But it was unclear whether those changes would prevent the new rule from hampering enforcement efforts.
"EPA assessments indicate that under this threshold, almost all of the facility changes at issue in the enforcement cases could now be exempt," the GAO found.
In addition, some EPA officials and environmentalists interviewed say the drafting of the rule itself delayed settlements in several cases, meaning pollution continued as the rule was written.
"Overall, the final rule could result in less assurance that the public will have access to data on facility changes and the emissions they create," the report found. "Less information would make it more difficult for the public to monitor local emissions and health risks, as well as compliance with NSR."
The Rockefeller Family Fund project — conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project — focused on another aspect of New Source Review: emissions.
The EPA used to require that old factories installing new equipment kept emissions to below the highest level for the facility in the preceding two years. Now the EPA will allow emissions to be as high as the highest two-year average in the preceding 10 years.
EIP's study indicates that the change will lead to more pollution.
"This study puts to rest EPA's claims that quantifying the emissions impact of the rule is impossible," said Eric Schaeffer, EIP's director and one of the former EPA officials who suggested Holmstead misled Congress. "EPA has no business issuing rules that jeopardize the public's health and air quality."
EPA studies in 2002 found that about 160 million tons of pollution were emitted into U.S. skies. About 146 million people lived in counties where air monitored in 2002 was periodically unhealthy from at least one of the six principal air pollutants, EPA said.