WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration on Friday eased clean air rules to allow utilities, refineries and manufacturers to avoid having to install expensive new anti-pollution equipment when they modernize their plants.
The long-awaited regulation issued by the Environmental Protection agency was immediately attacked by environmentalists, state air quality regulators and attorneys general in several Northeast states who promised a lawsuit to try to reverse the action.
But EPA Administrator Christie Whitman rejected critics' claims that the changes would produce dirtier air, saying in a statement they would encourage emission reductions by providing utilities and refinery operators new flexibility.
She said the old program has "deterred companies from implementing projects that would increase energy efficiency and decrease air pollution."
A group of Northeastern states, led by New York and Connecticut, said they planned to file suit challenging the changes. In New York, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer accused the administration of attacking the Clean Air Act with rules that would further degrade air quality in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states downwind from industrial plants.
"The Bush administration is again putting the financial interests of the oil, gas and coal companies above the public's right to breathe clean air," he said.
The rule changes, which have been a top priority of the White House, are aimed at making it easier for utilities and refinery operators to change operations and expand production without installing new emission controls.
Industry has argued that the old EPA regulations known as "New Source Review" under the Clean Air Act have hindered operation and prevented efficiency improvements.
The new EPA regulation will allow industry to:
Set higher limits for the amount of pollution that can be released by calculating emissions on a plant-wide basis rather than for individual pieces of equipment.
Rely on the highest historical pollution levels during the past decade when figuring whether a facility's overall pollution increase requires new controls.
Avoid having to update pollution controls if there has already been a government review of existing ones within the past 10 years.
Exempt increased output of secondary contaminants that result from new pollution controls for other emissions.
In addition, the agency is proposing a new way of defining what constitutes "routine maintenance, repair and replacement" -- key language that helps determine when the regulations should kick in and is particularly important for aging coal-fired power plants.
The EPA plans to grant power plants, factories and refineries an annual "allowance" for maintenance. Only when expenditures rise above that allowance would an owner or operator have to install new pollution control equipment. Replacement of existing equipment would be considered maintenance.
The administration said the new maintenance treatment "will offer facilities greater flexibility to improve and modernize their operations in ways that will reduce energy use and air pollution."
However, Vickie Patton, an attorney with Environmental Defense, said the changes amount to "a sweeping and unprecedented erosion of state and local power to protect the public health. ..."