The Environmental Protection Agency recently decided to put on hold new regulations that would have limited pollution from industrial boilers. Some advocates fear the agency is giving in to political pressure. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on the decision and whether it might help or hurt the agency's next big regulatory battle over enforcing new toxic air standards that could prevent thousands of premature deaths.
GELLERMAN: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to delay new rules that would curb industrial air pollution. The decision comes after intense pressure from companies and unrelenting criticism of the EPA from Republicans in Congress.
But supporters say the rules are overdue and the EPA’s delay raises concerns the Obama Administration is putting politics ahead of public health. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports from our Washington bureau.
TAJ: A proposed regulation to curb hazardous air emissions from industrial boilers has been in the works for years. The rule has undergone study, delay, under-funding, and repeated court orders demanding sound regulations based on science. Now the Obama EPA has put the new rule on hold indefinitely.
COEQUYT: The biggest problem with this decision is that it introduced a new way to delay rules.
TAJ: John Coequyt works for the Sierra Club, one of the green groups that sued the EPA over its slow response in the past on this rule. He says the move is disturbing - and not just because of the thousands of premature deaths that could be avoided each year with its enforcement.
COEQUYT: So now, every rule they're going to want an indefinite delay while they reconsider all of the problems that industry is going to identify. And it's going to result in industry now coming up with problems that don't exist, and everyone's going to want it all the time.
TAJ: The EPA says it needs more than the standard 90 days to address the nearly 5,000 comments it got in response to its proposal. But this isn’t the first time the Obama EPA has postponed tough environmental enforcements.
Last month, it decided to put off finalizing new regulations on mountaintop removal coal mining. Last year, it held off on issuing new ozone air quality standards. And more than two years after 130 million tons of coal ash flooded homes and rivers in Tennessee, the EPA still hasn’t decided whether the toxic waste should be regulated as a hazardous waste.
Some suspect the EPA is on a path of concession-making with industry and worn down from repeated attacks since midterm elections by moderate Democrats and Republicans like Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.
WHITFIELD: If we want America to be competitive, to create jobs, to compete with China, we must stop this out-of-control EPA.
TAJ: Whitfield co-sponsored a bill to keep the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions that passed the Republican-controlled House but failed in the Senate. At the time, he emphasized the legislation would only take away the EPA’s climate authority, leaving the EPA’s ability to restrict traditional pollutants intact.
WHITFIELD: We're not changing the Clean Air Act in any way. Ambient air quality - all of those things will still be enforced.
TAJ: But just hours after the EPA put the industrial boiler rule on hold, Whitfield and two of his Republican colleagues sent a letter pressing the agency to delay another pending rule: air standards that would cut mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants. Frank O’Donnell is with the environmental watchdog group, Clean Air Watch.
ODONNELL: Those power plants would have only three or four years to get their act together. They would either have to clean up or shut down. So it is truly the most significant proposal that the EPA has made.
Headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, where staffers are struggling to handle a backlog of overdue regulations amid criticism from industry. (Photo: thanigaivel)
TAJ: The EPA estimates enforcement of toxic air standards by 2016 would prevent up to 17,000 premature deaths and up to 140 billion dollars in health care expenses. But the Republican lawmakers pushing to give industry more time say the EPA has underestimated compliance costs.
Some see the rule, expected in November, as the bigger battle the EPA will have to fight, together with green house gas regulations, later this summer. But O’Donnell says sacrificing some rules to save others isn’t a smart strategy.
O’DONNELL: There's one theory out there that the EPA is saving its political capital for other standards that may carry a bigger bang for the buck. However, by making a concession, the EPA simply invited a further attack - perhaps because these opponents could smell the blood in the water, or in this case, the blood in the air.
TAJ: While members of Congress so far have only asked the EPA to give industry more time, industry itself has readied the legislation to force it to do so. A bill written by American Electric Power, one of the biggest and most coal-dependent utility companies in the country, would push various regulations, including restrictions on mercury back to 2020. Nick Akins, the president of American Electric Power, says his company is already struggling to keep up with existing regulations.
AKINS: We've had a substantial commitment to achieving these projects, and 60 percent of the increases to our customers’ electric bills have been environmental-related. The fact of the matter is, though, it took 105 years to build this system to where it is and you can't change it overnight.
TAJ: How do you address this issue of premature deaths in the meantime? I mean, some of the figures are really striking - children sick from mercury emissions - those are things that must weigh on you.
AKINS: Well, actually, our job in the utility industry is to balance a lot of interests. And there’s arguments that you've heard obviously that thousands of premature deaths will occur. We hear arguments on the other side as well - that there is no credible linkage in support there.
TAJ: It’s unclear whether the industry’s legislation to delay toxic air regulations will go anywhere - no member of Congress has openly embraced it yet. But it does put even more pressure on the EPA to hold back on enforcing another important public health rule. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Washington.
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