In fight with Texas regulators, EPA goes straight to industry

In the thick of a disagreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality over the state agency's air pollution program, U.S. EPA offered yesterday to let permit holders in Texas voluntarily undergo a third-party audit to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act.

The dispute between state and federal air regulators has drawn the attention of Texas businesses with many pollution permits hanging in the balance. EPA revoked the state permit for a Corpus Christi power plant last month and threatened to do the same to 39 other permits (Greenwire, May 27).

If an audit finds that a facility did not undergo all required reviews, the permit holder would be protected from civil prosecution. But if the audit finds emissions that exceed federal limits, companies would need to take steps such as installing new pollution controls.

"This is not something that's going to be required of companies in Texas. What we've done is put together what we believe is a tool that companies can use to fix their permits and to get them consistent with the Clean Air Act," said Al Armendariz, administrator of EPA's Region 6 office in Dallas. He described the audit program as an effort to let companies "get out of the uncertainty they're all under."

The agency intends to propose the program in the Federal Register this month, starting a 15-day public comment period.

"While we support innovative approaches, we do have concerns with the efficiency of the audit concept and how it would overlap the state's permitting processes. We look forward to studying the proposal and seeing subsequent comments," TCEQ said in a statement.

Stephen Minick of the Texas Association of Business said the group suspects that the agency intends to use the audits to crack down on the "flexible permits" at the heart of the dispute between EPA and TCEQ. While federal regulators claim the program allows more air pollution than allowed under the Clean Air Act, Texas has argued that the program has led to significant decreases in emissions.

"I fear the EPA and the federal government are using their position as the arbiter, and the agency with the ultimate authority, not to rule effectively on whether the program is legally sufficient, but to ... quite frankly, dig into individual permits and see if they can find issues to support the contentions that the program is inadequate or ineffective or inconsistent," Minick said (Peggy Fikac, Houston Chronicle, June 10). -- GN

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