AIR POLLUTION:

EPA tweaks proposed boiler rule, zeroes in on largest emitters

U.S. EPA today released a reworked package of proposed rules to tackle toxic emissions from 201,000 of the largest boilers and incinerators nationwide, hoping to clear up complaints from manufacturing groups as the agency clamps down on the industrial boilers that are one of the largest U.S. sources of harmful air pollution.

Manufacturers went to court when EPA, under orders from a federal court, finalized the long-delayed pollution limits this spring. Some companies that burn oil, coal, natural gas or biomass to provide their operations with heat and electricity urged Congress to intervene, saying their facilities could not meet the new limits on chemicals such as mercury, acid gases and dioxins.

Based on newly received data, the package released today by EPA includes slightly less stringent standards for carbon monoxide, particulate matter and metals, but stricter standards for mercury and acid gases, EPA air chief Gina McCarthy told reporters this morning. It also replaces the limits on cancer-causing dioxins with "work practice" standards, based on an analysis showing that dioxin emissions occur in such trace amounts that they cannot be accurately measured.

EPA says the pollution cuts from today's proposal would cost businesses $1.49 billion, half the price of a 2010 proposal but slightly more than the $1.4 billion for the final rule released this spring. The change reflects that about 300 boilers were added to the agency's inventory of emissions sources this year.

"With this action, EPA is applying the right standards to the right boilers," McCarthy said in a statement. "Gathering the latest and best real-world information is leading to practical, affordable air pollution safeguards that will provide the vital and overdue health protection that Americans deserve."

The outcome is one that might be favored by the Occupy Wall Street movement -- it lands squarely on the 1 percent.

More than 99 percent of the 1.5 million boilers in the United States are small enough or clean enough that they would be completely exempt or would only need annual tune-ups to comply, EPA said. Today's proposed revisions would require tune-ups every two years rather than annually as this spring's final rules would have required.

And because about 88 percent of the highest-emitting 14,000 boilers already meet the proposed limits, only about 1 percent of all U.S. boilers would need to add new pollution controls or take other steps to cut their emissions, EPA said.

Manufacturing groups such as the American Chemistry Council and the American Forest & Paper Association sued the agency over the rules that were finalized this spring, saying the emissions limits could not be met by some of their members. Both groups welcomed today's changes but said they would still prefer the legislation moving through Congress.

The House passed a bill last month to delay the rules by at least 15 months, scale back their requirements and give companies two more years to comply. A similar bill (S. 1392) sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) has not received a vote in the Senate.

Like the Senate bill, today's proposal by EPA would redefine "solid waste" to make it clear that wood scraps and other types of biomass are not subject to the stricter incinerator rules. The forest products industry had warned that ambiguous rules could triple the cost of compliance and prevent the use of biomass.

Industry groups released statements this morning saying that facilities such as paper mills and chemical plants still won't be able to invest with confidence.

"Unfortunately, these rules remain open to challenge in the courts, which has prolonged the process by years already," Donna Harman, the CEO of the forest products group, said in a statement. "This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that prevents investment and thwarts American manufacturing competitiveness."

McCarthy told reporters that today's proposal would fix legal deficiencies that could otherwise make the rules more vulnerable to legal challenges.

Environmentalists and public health groups have argued that EPA could do more to clean up boilers, but they said today that it is time for rules to hit the books. The final regulations EPA issued this spring were placed on hold during the revisions.

The American Lung Association said it is pleased that the rules would prevent as many as 8,100 premature deaths, 5,100 heart attacks and 52,000 asthma attacks each year, mainly by keeping soot- and smog-forming chemicals out of the air. EPA estimates that those benefits would be worth $27 billion to $67 billion per year, far exceeding the costs of complying.

"Opponents in Congress ought to stand down and let the agency move forward with what looks to be at least an effort to deal with this mess in a practical and cost-effective way," Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said in an emailed statement.

Click here to read the proposed revisions.