February 23, 2011
EPA Scales Back Final Air Pollution Rules for Boilers
By GABRIEL NELSON of Greenwire
Bound by a court-ordered deadline and facing intense pressure from Congress, U.S. EPA has overhauled its rules for toxic air pollution from industrial boilers to go easier on businesses.
With a set of final rules released today, EPA claims to have found a more cost-effective way to protect public health by sparing cleaner boilers and small facilities from the strictest limits on chemicals such as mercury, lead and dioxins. Because of those changes, the final rules will cost about $1.8 billion less per year than the rules that were proposed last spring.
The boiler rules have been labeled as an early test of President Obama's executive order to review the effects of new rules on businesses, and today's announcement seems to reflect a desire to show the administration is serious about balancing public health and the economy.
In a letter to stakeholders that was obtained by Greenwire, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the final rule would cut compliance costs in half while greatly reducing exposure to toxic pollution.
"I am proud of the work that the EPA has done to craft protective, sensible standards," Jackson wrote in the letter, which was dated today. "The standards reflect what industry has told the agency about the practical reality of operating these units."
Under the final rules, the roughly 13,800 largest industrial boilers will still need to meet specific limits on toxic emissions. Those limits will force some facilities such as chemical plants and refineries to install new controls, cutting back on air pollution that is linked to asthma, heart attacks and early death.
Based on updated figures, EPA estimates that the rules would prevent 2,500 to 6,500 premature deaths once the rules take effect in 2014, along with 4,000 heart attacks and 41,000 cases of aggravated asthma.
But smaller boilers that release less pollution will only need tuneups to show they are doing as much as possible to limit their emissions, according to the Associated Press. Boilers powered by cleaner-burning fuels such as natural gas will also need to use certain work practices rather than stay under a hard limit on their pollution.
"We continue to believe that this is the appropriate control measure," said Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement. He said the group would keep working with the agency to "ensure that the final rule protects the environment while allowing businesses to create jobs and get Americans back to work."
The final rules also create a subcategory for boilers that burn biomass, distinguishing them from coal-fired boilers, and granting a request by the American Forest & Paper Association. The trade group claimed that the rules proposed last year couldn't be achieved by many paper mills that use wood waste to power their operations.
Environmentalists said the rule appears to protect public health despite concessions to industry groups.
Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said he was pleased that the agency didn't allow certain exemptions based on the risk of toxic pollution to public health, which he described as "illegal and inappropriate."
"It appears that EPA has addressed many of the industry complaints while still putting out standards that would bring significant public health benefits," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. "Let's hope that EPA stands its ground when industries argue for further changes. "
When the agency analyzed the costs and benefits of the proposed rule last year, it found a bigger bang for the buck in reducing pollution from the largest boilers. Controlling the smaller "area source" boilers would produce $900 million to $2.4 billion in benefits per year at an upfront cost of $2.5 billion and an annual cost of $1 billion, but controlling the larger "major source" boilers would yield $17 billion to $41 billion in benefits per year at an upfront cost of $9.5 billion and an annual cost of $2.9 billion.
Concerns from Congress
While today's announcement drew cautious praise from both industry groups and environmentalists, the final rules might still evolve because EPA has signaled that it will work out more kinks in the months ahead.
Over the next two months, businesses and environmental groups with concerns about the rules will be allowed to file petitions with the agency, which has the option to delay the implementation of the new rules for an extra three months as it reviews the arguments.
It also remains unclear how the changes will be received on Capitol Hill, where hundreds of lawmakers have signed letters urging EPA to ensure that the final rules don't impose unnecessary costs on businesses.
Among the critics is Sen. Rob Portman, a freshman Republican from Ohio. Last week, he joined three Republican colleagues and two Democrats in signing a letter that asked whether EPA would welcome a congressional assist in reworking the boiler rules.
Yesterday afternoon, while President Obama was stumping for innovative businesses at Cleveland State University, Portman was 200 miles southwest in Chillicothe, Ohio, visiting a specialty paper plant that would be subject to EPA's new air pollution rules.
Portman told Greenwire he is worried that the boiler rules could hurt the competitiveness of the P.H. Glatfelter Co. plant, which employs about 1,200 workers at an average salary of more than $60,000 per year. The company told him the rules proposed last year couldn't be met with existing technology, and that complying could wipe out a whole year's worth of profits for the U.S. printing industry.
The backlash in Congress reflects that the shock waves from the rule would be felt up and down the supply chain, from the producers of wood fiber to the companies that use the finished paper products, Portman said. So, too, with the public sector, because many schools and hospitals use boilers to provide heat and power.
"I can't believe, with the thousands of comments that they've received, that they wouldn't be rethinking the rule," Portman said yesterday. "This is not workable."
The boiler rule is one of the Obama administration's most closely watched efforts under the Clean Air Act. It was prompted, like a similar upcoming rule for coal-fired boilers at power plants, by a court ruling that decided the pollution rules issued by the George W. Bush administration were illegal.
Both environmentalists and industry sources agree that the rules issued today were a particular challenge because so many facilities use boilers in different ways. When EPA issued its proposal last year, businesses hadn't provided enough information, so it was difficult to "calculate standards that fully reflected operational reality," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson wrote in a letter to members of Congress.
During the public comment period, the agency received a lot of new information, an EPA spokesman said at the time. He said the agency would need to make substantial changes, which is what appears to have happened today.
"The final standards, which are not due until early next year, will reflect all of the relevant new information, and that is exactly how this process is supposed to work," the spokesman said (Greenwire, Sept. 28, 2010).