Administration weakens Clean Air Act—‘New Source Review’ changes made law

Administration weakens Clean Air Act—‘New Source Review’ changes made law


In its most significant post-election action on the environment, the Bush administration has implemented sweeping rollbacks of the Clean Air Act. These changes to the Act’s “New Source Review” safeguards will allow major energy corporations and other large industries to increase air pollution dramatically. “Final rules” signed Nov. 22 by EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman are now law, while even more drastic “proposed rules” moved one step closer to becoming law.

New Source Review is the Clean Air Act program that requires the oldest and dirtiest “grandfathered” power plants and refineries to install modem pollution controls, whenever they make major modifications that substantially increase pollution. Nationally, the program also applies to more than 17,000 industrial facilities like incinerators, steel mills, and paper plants.

“The changes announced today will result in more pollution and dirtier air and will undermine the ongoing attempts to enforce the law at plants that have already been charged with illegally polluting,” said Brian Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health programs for the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. “The only initiative proposed by the administration to reduce air pollution, the Clear Skies initiative, would not go into effect for 10 years or more. People living with unhealthy levels of air pollution like Chicago can’t hold their breath that long.”

The New Source Review program was meant to ensure that older polluting facilities are not given a permanent exemption from ever meeting tighter pollution control requirements. Newer facilities must already meet such tighter pollution limits. In Illinois, nearly two dozen older power plants enjoy this “grandfathered” status, which has allowed them to avoid meeting new power plant emission control levels set more than two decades ago. Annually, fine particle pollution from power plants cuts short the lives of more than 1,700 people and leads to an additIonal 33,000 asthma attacks in Illinois. Ensuring that older power plants upgrade pollution controls when major investments are made to extend the life of a power plant would save lives and lead to far fewer asthma attacks.

“The American people want to breathe clean air and don’t want to see the Clean Air act weakened,” said Ashley Collins, environmental director for Citizen Action/Illinois. “It is both wrong and misguided to roll back clean air safeguards to benefit big polluters at the expense of Americans’ health.”

Potentially even worse than these Final Rules, however, are additional changes being proposed by the administration that would allow power plants to make virtually any change to their facilities—even ones that significantly increase pollution—without having to install new pollution controls. These changes would effectively kill the New Source Review program for existing power plants.

“The changes to the New Source Review program represent the biggest rollback in the Clean Air Act’s 30-year history,” said Brian Metcalf, environmental advocate for the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (Illinois PIRG). “The administration’s move is irresponsible and reprehensible.”

Local efforts are moving forward to clean up large polluters in Illinois. State law enacted in 2001 enables the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate the need for and to propose tighter emission limits for older power plants. The Agency is actively working on this effort and can propose tighter smokestack pollution limits as early as September 2003. The Chicago City Council is also considering an ordinance proposed by Alderman Ed Burke that would require significant reductions from the two older coal-fired power plants in Chicago. Emissions from the Fisk and Crawford power plants have been tied to more than 40 premature deaths and approximately 2,800 additional asthma attacks annually. Both of these efforts, however, have not yet established firm deadlines when pollution would have to be reduced. By defining the New Source Review program out of existence at the federal level, however, emissions could increase almost immediately.

“The Clean Air Act should be strengthened, not weakened by the Bush administration, which is allowing more harmful air pollution,” claimed Faith Bugel, staff attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “NSR should be applied to clean up the old, dirty power plants that have been polluting our air and causing respiratory health problems for residents living nearby.”

Fact Sheet: ‘Final Rule’

changes to New Source Review

l Plantwide Applicability Limit (PAL)

Allows factories such as power plants, refineries and chemical facilities to avoid modern emission control requirements by placing a cap on overall facility emissions based on their most polluting 24-month period in the last decade.

PROBLEM: Establishes perpetual grandfathering of excessive emissions at old dirty units, and would allow increases in pollutants from some units above current levels.

l Clean unit loophole

Allows sources that install something comparable to Best Available Control Technology to escape NSR for 10-15 years, even if the source makes major changes that significantly increase pollution emissions.

PROBLEM: Clean-up technology is improving rapidly, and standards for “best available control” continually tighten as a result. But this provision would essentially freeze progress for more than a decade and create, in effect, a new “grandfathering” status.

l Changes in how to determine whether an emission increase has occurred

Non-utility sources of pollution may now use a more lenient method of calculating whether an emission increase has occurred as a result of a major modification. The new test is the same as that used for utilities.

PROBLEM: For years, utilities have been allowed to escape NSR review based on a “projection” that they will not crank up their facilities to full capacity in the future. By extending this loophole to industrial facilities, emissions will be even harder to control under this new definition of emission increase.

PROBLEM: The new rule will also allow sources to pick and choose the “baseline” that increases are measured from—from as long ago as 10 years. Thus, neighbors of a facility that has long had lower emissions for a decade could suddenly be faced with large emissions increases, with no legal recourse.

l Pollution control exemption

The EPA will allow a source to avoid cleaning up to modern standards for all pollutants if the source has installed pollution controls for only one pollutant.

PROBLEM: This means that a source that puts on controls to clean up nitrogen oxide emissions can make changes that increase sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, or cancer-causing benzene without modernizing controls for those pollutants.

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