'We have so far to go' in pollution fight -- air chief

As the Obama administration pushes forward on new rules to combat climate change, U.S. EPA's new air chief insists that the agency will not neglect the host of conventional pollutants that damage air quality across the country.

Speaking last week to the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee -- a diverse group of stakeholders that offers advice on air policies -- EPA Assistant Air Administrator Gina McCarthy offered a road map for where she intends to take her office. And while climate is a very large problem that will change the direction of EPA in many different ways, "it's not all about climate," she said.

"I am more than aware that we haven't begun the fight on clean air -- that we have so far to go," she said. "And the real challenge for us is to figure out how we use the energy behind climate to drive the other changes that the [Clean Air] Act intended."

EPA's new strategy involves not just climate but also driving down criteria pollutants and air toxics, she said.

Her comments were hailed by clean air advocates who want to ensure that efforts to limit harmful pollutants like particulate matter and sulfur dioxide are not eclipsed by global warming programs.


"We were very happy to hear her comments about the importance of protecting and maintaining the core elements of the Clean Air Act programs," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies and a member of the advisory committee.

"There needs to be an expansive effort, not just on climate, but particularly on reducing criteria pollutants, because the threat to human health trumps almost every other threat that we face," Becker said, adding that tens of thousands of people die every year from exposure to conventional pollution.

Among the most pressing air issues that the agency faces is the reconsideration of the contentious 2008 ozone regulations set by the George W. Bush administration. In response to a court deadline, EPA announced last month that it will reconsider the national air quality standards for ozone, or smog. The Bush EPA tightened the national limits last year, but critics assailed the administration for adopting a standard that failed to protect public health (E&ENews PM, Sept. 16).

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was not convinced that the previous limits were based on sound science, McCarthy said. The new air chief vowed to ensure that the "best science" drives the reconsideration. A new ozone rule will be proposed by December, with a final rule scheduled for August 2010, McCarthy said.

Curbing air toxics that cause cancer or other serious health effects is also a top priority for the agency, the air chief said. "I think that's a big issue that will continue to get bigger as time goes on," McCarthy added.

Future regulations to curb toxic air emissions on a facility-by-facility basis will be drivers for industry investment, she said, which could provide opportunities for curbing other pollutants.

McCarthy repeatedly emphasized the importance of adopting a multi-pollutant strategy for future rulemakings, in part because it offers regulatory certainty to industry.

"I love the multi-pollutant strategy," she said. "I love the idea that we can move from an individual rulemaking and actually think about where we're trying to get to in a complicated, more comprehensive way."

During her tenure, McCarthy pledged to work with industry to define the rules of the game in a way that all members of the regulated community know what is expected of them so there can be more certainty when investments are made.

Lisa Gomez, director of environmental services at Sempra Energy and a member of the advisory committee, welcomed McCarthy's promise of regulatory certainty.

"One of the things that continues to frustrate me -- and it sounds like you, as well -- is how hard it is to figure out what you're supposed to do," Gomez said to McCarthy. "It's really complicated, so I just wanted to say I applaud your comments about implementation, but also clarity and making things as simple as we can in a complex world."

Back to climate

McCarthy also offered a timeline for the agency's suite of proposed climate change regulations, including the agency's proposed finding that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. The controversial "endangerment finding" would pave the way for other proposed regulations, like greenhouse gas emission standards for automobiles and permitting requirements for industrial sources.

McCarthy said a final endangerment rule will be coming out within the next couple of months. EPA received almost 400,000 comments before the public comment period on the rule closed in June, she said.

"The delay after the close of the comment period is just to make sure that we credit all of those comments and we consider them thoughtfully," she said. "But we will be moving ahead on that issue."

And should that finding be positive,McCarthy added, the agency will move forward on its proposal to impose the first-ever greenhouse gas standard on the nation's cars and trucks (Greenwire, Sept. 15). That rule would need to be finalized by March 31, 2010, to meet the statutory requirement that standards be completed 18 months before the model year begins Oct. 1, 2011.

McCarthy also defended the agency's controversial proposal to require facilities that release more than 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year to demonstrate that they have used the best available pollution controls to curb those emissions. The permitting program would be triggered once the automobile regulations were finalized (Greenwire, Oct. 7).

EPA proposed to "tailor" the Clean Air Act permitting programs to limit the number of facilities that would be required to obtain Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) and Title V operating permits under the programs. The Clean Air Act requires facilities to obtain those construction and operating permits when they emit more than 250 tons of harmful pollutants per year.

"The PSD rule was not about what we're exempting. It's about what we're capturing and the opportunities," McCarthy said. "I make no apologies for PSD being triggered. It is a good thing."

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