AIR POLLUTION:

EPA to review Bush-era rule for Ala. soot emissions

U.S. EPA has asked a federal appeals court to return for agency review a controversial air pollution rule governing how much soot can be emitted from Alabama smokestacks.

At issue is an EPA rule limiting the density of smoke, or opacity, that can be emitted from aging power plants and other sources within the state. The Bush administration's EPA revised the rule in October, a move that riled environmental groups claiming that the revision allowed industrial polluters to spew more soot into the air.

Groups including the Alabama Environmental Council, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued EPA over the rule and asked the agency to reconsider its decision. The Bush EPA denied the groups' request, but the Obama EPA asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week to stall legal proceedings while the agency reconsiders the rule.

Environmental groups saw the decision as a signal that the Obama administration plans to overhaul the regulation.

"We hope and believe that the Obama administration will reverse this travesty and reinstate the stronger rule," said John Walke, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The agency has not indicated whether it will reverse the Bush rule, however, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and industry intervenors in the lawsuit are hopeful that EPA will leave the current regulation intact.

"We oppose EPA granting this second petition for rehearing, and we oppose the request to the court to remand the issue to EPA and hold the court proceedings in abeyance," said Ron Gore, the head of ADEM's air division. "We want the trial on the merits to proceed."

ADEM says the change merely codified an enforcement practice the state had used for decades, but environmentalists argue that rule was ratifying illegal exemptions for air pollution violations.

"Alabama polluters had to comply with stronger standards for 30 years, so the idea that the rule needed to be weakened for them to comply was absurd," said Michael Churchman, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council. "Many of those polluters are using control equipment which is aging and degrading instead of using up-to-date technology that can perform much better."

Click here to read EPA's request to the court.