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EPA policy revisions equal less access

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EPA policy revisions equal less access

  • A GAO report concludes that changes to EPA policies on power plant emissions may result in loss of public access to information about pollution.

Oct. 30, 2003 — A recent General Accounting Office report found that changes to an Environmental Protection Agency policy may make it more difficult for the public to gain access to information about pollution by power plants.

The changes affect the New Source Review Program, an enforcement mechanism of the Clean Air Act. The program requires new industrial facilities, such as power plants, to install modern air pollution controls, but allows existing facilities to put off installing such controls until a “major modification” is made. Modifications deemed to be “routine maintenance” do not require installation of modern pollution controls.

Based on concerns that the program requirements could impede investment in energy efficiency and pollution controls, the EPA changed the policy for when power plant modifications are deemed “routine maintenance.” The GAO report, released Oct. 21, concludes that some of the policy changes will limit public access to information on emissions levels.

The GAO report was conducted at the request of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who sits on the committee.

One change allows a power plant to set an overall pollution emission threshold and make major modifications to parts of a facility without triggering program requirements, as long as the facility’s overall emissions do not exceed the threshold. While setting the initial threshold requires the company to provide notice to the public and an opportunity for public comment, the report concludes that the change will also allow the company to make major modifications without public notice as long as the threshold is not exceeded.

Other changes to the New Source Review Program rules give power plants more flexibility in determining a facility’s historic “baseline” level of pollution, and in predicting post-modification pollution levels. The report concludes that the changes may mean that fewer power plant modifications will be determined to be “major. ” Modifications that are not “major” do not trigger reporting requirements.

Where modifications do not trigger program rules, but there is a “reasonable possibility” that they will do so in the future, a company is required to make records related to the modification publicly accessible. But because the rules do not define “reasonable possibility,” according to the report, companies will in effect be policing themselves in determining when to keep records.

The rule also does not specify how the company must provide public access to these records, the report notes.

GP


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