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EPA reverses air pollution rule

Agency heeds request of Republican senators to withdraw long-standing policy

by Britt E. Erickson
February 1, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 6

Photo of power plant stacks taken from across a river.
Credit: Shutterstock
Coal-fired power plants, such as this one in Kentucky, could find their air emission regulations eased.

As part of the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce burdensome regulations, the U.S. EPA has withdrawn a 23-year-old policy intended to reduce air emissions of hazardous substances such as arsenic, lead, mercury, and benzene. Affected facilities include coal-fired power plants and chemical facilities.

Under the former policy, once a facility was classified as a “major” source of hazardous air emissions, it was always considered a major source. That meant that it was required to reduce emissions down to levels based on how much is technologically possible for the lifetime of the operation.

Now, under guidelines released by EPA on Jan. 25, facilities that are classified as a major source can be reclassified as an “area” source if their emissions fall below a certain threshold. Area sources are subject to weaker standards than major sources.

Chemical manufacturers, the fossil fuel industry, and Republicans in Congress are cheering the move. In a Jan. 9 letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), leaders on the Senate Environment & Public Works committee, wrote that the policy “discourages” and “disincentivizes” air emissions reductions. The committee received such complaints from the American Coatings Association (ACA) and other industry groups as part of a Nov. 15 hearing on reducing air emissions through innovation. ACA noted that “resources spent on compliance could be used instead for [research and development], or modernization activities.”

Some Democrats argue that the decision will lead to increased air emissions of hazardous substances. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the committee, is alarmed by the abruptness of EPA’s decision to reverse the decades-old policy. “While citing no analysis of the public health impacts of this decision, Administrator Pruitt’s EPA has proactively allowed polluters to increase output of toxic air pollution,” Carper said in a statement.

Environmentalists pledged to fight EPA’s decision. “Rolling back longstanding protections to allow the greatest increase in hazardous air pollutants in our nation’s history is unconscionable,” said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.



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