WASHINGTON – A new report charges that Bush administration revisions to the Clean Air Act will continue to allow millions of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere, including more than 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide from Maryland power plants alone.
The report released Tuesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group came one day after 12 states, including Maryland, sued the Environmental Protection Agency over proposed changes to the New Source Review program under the Clean Air Act.
“We will take whatever steps necessary to protect the health of our citizens and the Chesapeake Bay,” Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran said in a statement. “Over 650,000 Marylanders suffer from respiratory ailments. The air that they breathe — the air that we breathe — needs to be improved, and the rule announced by the EPA is a step in the wrong direction.”
Maryland, like many states in the suit, is downwind of hundreds of the oldest and dirtiest power plants in the nation, many of which are in the Midwest.
“We’re the states that are most adversely affected,” Curran said.
Besides Maryland, the suit includes New York, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin as well as the District of Columbia and more than 20 cities and towns, most in Connecticut.
But supporters of the New Source Review changes say that the new regulations will make the situation better, not worse, by making it less burdensome for power plant operators to make routine repairs. They said the changes are meant to help plants run efficiently.
“EPA does not believe that this rule will result in any significant changes in emissions,” said John Millett, a spokesman for the agency.
When the Clean Air Act took effect in the 1970s, power plants operating at the time were temporarily exempted from its requirements. Those “grandfathered” plants were required to come up to modern emissions standards, however, when they upgraded their equipment.
But the EPA, in regulations published Monday, proposed that routine maintenance of equipment be exempt from such upgrades. Under the new standards, the upgrades would only be required if the repairs to the equipment cost more than 20 percent of the total cost of its replacement.
The EPA would still require that the replacement parts be “functionally equivalent” to existing parts and that there be “no change to basic design or emitting capacity” as a result of the repairs.
The proposed changes were published Monday in the Federal Register and will take effect in 60 days.
But critics fear that grandfathered power plants will exploit the new rule, making upgrades every year that are just under the 20 percent limit. That will allow them “to expand their operation and extend their life cycle . . . and never be at the standard new plants are,” said Gillian Ream of Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
MaryPIRG, citing the USPIRG report, said the changes would mean 7.1 millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and 2.7 millions of tons of nitrogen dioxide nationwide will continue to “go unchecked” into the atmosphere, based on 2002 emissions from the dirtiest plants.
MaryPIRG said Maryland is a “leading producer” of these emissions: The state’s 10 dirtiest power plants emit 255,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually, a figure that the report estimates could be reduced 81 percent if modern pollution controls were installed.
“We believe that the older plants should put in the pollution control devices when they’re making their modifications,” Curran said. “They’ve had 30 years to prepare for this.”
But Millett said rolling back Monday’s rule change would not make a difference to overall improvements in air quality that have resulted from Clean Air Act programs over the years.
“There’s been no indication that the previous New Source Review program contributed in any appreciable way to those improvements,” he said.