AIR POLLUTION:

EPA seeks to delay controversial boiler rules

In the face of heavy criticism from industry groups and members of Congress, U.S. EPA is asking to go back to the drawing board with a set of regulations that would limit toxic air pollution from industrial boilers.

The final regulations are due next month, but EPA today asked a federal judge to push back the deadline by more than a year so the agency can issue a new proposal and take more comments. The proposed limits on mercury and other dangerous chemicals have drawn heavy fire from industry groups, which said the standards were so strict that they would force the closure of paper mills, chemical plants and other industrial facilities that get their power from boilers.

EPA recently signaled that it was having second thoughts about the rules, which were proposed in April. Gina McCarthy, EPA's top air official, told Greenwire last week that the agency now believes the draft rules "were simply too tight to be able to be achievable" (Greenwire, Dec. 2).

"After receiving additional data through the extensive public comment period, EPA is requesting more time to develop these important rules," McCarthy said in a statement today. "We want to ensure these rules are practical to implement and protect all Americans from dangerous pollutants such as mercury and soot, which affect kids' development, aggravate asthma and cause heart attacks."

The agency's proposal, which is also known as the "Boiler MACT" rule, has faced widespread criticism on Capitol Hill and become a cause celebre for critics of the Obama administration's environmental agenda. Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the two front-runners to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, have both criticized the agency's proposal, and each has cited it as an example of the regulations that will face greater scrutiny if he becomes chairman of the panel next year.

More than 115 House members and 40 senators have signed letters urging EPA to make the final rules less expensive for American businesses. Among them are dozens of Democrats, many of them from states that rely on the forestry industry.

"The proposal they originally put out, by their own admission, lacked data," said Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association, in an interview today. "They now have that, and they have to take the time to get it right."

Enviros criticize EPA

Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said he was worried by EPA's plan to delay one of the Obama administration's most ambitious steps to address air pollution.

He said the decision could portend more delays for the agency's update to the nationwide standards for smog, which were due this summer but were twice pushed back by EPA. The agency has said it plans to finalize a rule this month.

"There is an unfortunate appearance here that political pressure from Congress is affecting the situation," O'Donnell said in a statement. "That EPA is running scared."

Though today's request needs to be approved by Judge Paul Friedman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, it would be the latest in a series of delays for the boiler standards.

Under the Clean Air Act, the agency was initially required to issue standards by 2000. The rules arrived late, and they were delayed again when a federal court ruled that the Bush administration had handled boilers in an illegal way.

Jim Pew, an attorney at Earthjustice who worked on the court case, said it makes no sense for the court to give EPA another year to come out with a final rule. After winning their lawsuit against EPA, the advocacy groups had agreed to give EPA from 2007 until January 2011 -- already longer than the two-year time frame in the Clean Air Act, he said.

EPA told the court that it wants to scrap this year's proposal and issue new draft rules next year, opening them up to another public comment period. It is an "achievable, but very aggressive" schedule, the court filing says.

Pew said the environmental groups will respond to EPA's request in court.

"This schedule is just completely out of touch with Congress' intent," he said.

Click here to read EPA's request.