AIR POLLUTION:

Court orders EPA to finish boiler rules by next month

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., has given U.S. EPA one more month to finalize a set of limits on toxic air pollution from industrial boilers, saying the agency's concerns about the controversial rules don't justify its request for another 15 months to rework them.

The agency has not shown that it would have been impossible to meet the previous deadline of Jan. 16, 2011, District Court Judge Paul Friedman ruled today. He sided with environmental groups, which had challenged EPA's request for more time.

The deadline was put in place after EPA lost a court challenge to the George W. Bush administration's handling of air pollution from industrial boilers, which provide power to paper mills, factories and many other large facilities. Under the regulations, these facilities would need to install the maximum achievable control technology (MACT) to limit their emissions of mercury, dioxins and other types of toxic pollution.

When the Obama administration issued a draft "Boiler MACT" rule last summer, the proposed standards drew intense criticism from industry groups and many lawmakers in Congress, who worried that the rules would force businesses to close and drive jobs overseas.

In the months leading up to the deadline, EPA officials started raising concerns about the proposed rules. Days before the agency announced that it wanted to go back to the drawing board, air chief Gina McCarthy told reporters that EPA thought some facilities might not have been able to achieve the proposed standards (Greenwire, Dec. 2, 2010).

EPA asked Friedman for more time to overhaul the standards, but he ruled that the Clean Air Act sets clear deadlines.

"The policy arguments EPA raises have no place in a case where Congress has mandated expedition, and its statutorily-mandated deadlines have long since passed," he wrote in his opinion today. "While EPA's view on the importance of its rules and the preferable course of conduct may have merit, at this stage EPA's remedy lies with Congress, not the courts."

Barring action on Capitol Hill, the agency now has until Feb. 21 to issue a final rule.

The divisive boiler standards are seen as a crucial prelude to upcoming toxic pollution standards for power plants, which the agency is legally obligated to propose in March.

Some advocacy groups grew critical of EPA after the agency asked for more time to finish the boiler standards, along with an unrelated rule that would tighten the national limit on smog. Though the agency said the decisions were driven by science, critics said it appeared the Obama administration was bowing to political pressure after an election in which Republicans campaigned against federal regulations.

Industry groups, which had praised the agency for taking a second look, bemoaned today's decision. It will only lead to more litigation, Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, said in a statement.

"Regulations such as the Boiler MACT rule have far-reaching implications for communities, workers and businesses across the country," she said. "The overriding mission should be to produce a sound rule that keeps Americans healthy and employed, and today's decision by the court fails to give the agency what it said it needed."

Click here to read the decision.