Exaggerated EPA claims revealed
BLUMENTHAL; The News Tribune
WASHINGTON STATE- Despite repeated warnings from officials in Olympia
and its own regional office in Seattle, the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency vastly exaggerated the possible benefits to Washington state
from the Bush administration's signature clean air program.
In releasing state-by-state details of the Clear Skies initiative
last year, the EPA claimed it would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions
in Washington by 87 percent, while nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions
would remain stable.
But in making the claims, the EPA's headquarters in Washington, D.C.,
ignored conflicting information from its regional office and the Washington
State Department of Ecology that strongly suggested its data was wrong,
according to interviews and internal documents obtained by The News
The EPA later clarified its claims, and an official admitted to "a
mistake" in interpreting the data, though he said there was no
serious discord between the regional and national offices.
The Clear Skies plan being pushed by the Bush administration would
overhaul the nation's clean air laws and allow industry more flexibility
in how it meets the regulations.
In Washington state, the reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions had
already been achieved when state-of-the-art pollution control equipment
was installed at a coal-fired electric plant in Centralia under an
agreement brokered in 1996. The Centralia coal plant had been the
largest source of sulfur dioxide pollution in Washington prior to
the installation of scrubbers last year.
E-mails from the EPA's Seattle office, obtained under a Freedom of
Information Act request filed by The News Tribune, showed that for
months regional officials questioned the data assembled at the agency's
At the same time, state Ecology Department officials were making the
same case to national and regional EPA officials about the Centralia
coal plant and sulfur dioxide emissions.
"We told them they were taking credit for emissions controls
already in place," said Stu Clark, a policy analyst in the Ecology
Department's air quality office.
Eventually, the EPA responded by adding a technical footnote to the
analysis of the Clear Skies benefits for Washington state.
Though the agency continued to insist it would result in an 87 percent
decrease in sulfur dioxide emissions, the footnote said the "base
case modeling" did not take into account the improvements made
at the Centralia plant and that the reduction in emissions "will
be less than projected values."
John Iani, the EPA regional director, sought to downplay any breach
between his staff and the agency's national headquarters.
"I think it has been resolved from our perspective," Iani
said. "There was no acrimony between headquarters and the region.
It was a mistake headquarters made when it first ran the data."
Even so, Clark said Ecology Department staff had also told the EPA
that if Clear Skies was adopted it could actually lead to an increase
in sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions in the state.
The new standards in Clear Skies could undercut current state clean
Under Clear Skies, Clark said sulfur dioxide emissions could increase
34 percent, mercury emissions could rise by up to 88 percent and nitrogen
oxides emissions could double.
State officials have become increasingly concerned about the Bush
administration's policies involving clean air. Earlier this month,
Washington announced it will join six Northeastern states in suing
the EPA for failing to update air pollution standards as required
by the federal Clean Air Act.
"Our primary concern is global climate change," David Mears,
a senior assistant attorney general for the state, said of the lawsuit.
The Clear Skies initiative would replace current clean-air safeguards
with an emissions-trading system. National caps would be placed on
industrial emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxides,
but it would be up to industry to stay within the limits. Companies
would be allowed to buy and sell emission "credits" as long
as the overall limits were not exceeded.
Administration officials said the initiative would reduce the number
of drawn-out lawsuits that have plagued the electric industry as it
tries to expand older generating plants. Environmentalists have said
it would gut current regulations and lead to increased air pollution.
In his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush urged
Congress to quickly pass Clear Skies. After it was introduced in Congress
last week, Bush said it would reduce power plant emissions "much
further, faster, more cost-effectively and with more certainty than
Sulfur dioxide, produced mostly at coal-fired generating plants like
the one at Centralia, is an ingredient in acid rain and can cause
breathing problems and permanent lung damage. It also can reduce visibility.
Nitrogen oxides, which come from burning of petroleum products, are
a key ingredient in smog and can cause lung damage. Roughly a dozen
electric generating plants in Washington state burn natural gas.
Mercury, which can be a byproduct of burning coal, is considered highly
toxic. It can cause serious damage to the brain and senses.
Much of the controversy over acid rain has been centered in the Northeast,
where emissions from Midwest coal-fired power plants are blown. But
the 1996 agreement to update the Centralia plant involved, in part,
National Park Service concerns over deteriorating visibility and possible
acid rain at Mount Rainier.
The scrubbers installed at the Centralia plant are expected to reduce
sulfur dioxide emissions by 90 percent.
Beginning in at least late spring of last year, officials in the EPA's
Seattle office began pointing out to agency officials in Washington,
D.C., that their projections for Clear Skies' effect in the state
"I am also concerned that the Region 10 (Seattle) data is still
wrong, despite our pointing out several times over the last two months
that the only large coal-fired plant in Region 10 has already been
controlled," Bonnie Thie, a manager in the regional office of
air quality, wrote in a July 1, 2002 e-mail to Prudence Goforth, head
of public relations for the EPA air quality office in Washington,
Thie said the regional office had decided not to distribute a proposed
news release it received from the national office because of the problem.
"The graphics and tables still include the emissions from this
controlled source (Centralia)," Thie said.
In a telephone interview, Thie said regional officials "certainly
pointed out on several levels" that the data for Washington state
needed to reflect the improvements at the Centralia plant.
Among those who may have been aware of the problem was Jeff Holmstead,
the EPA's top clean air official, according to Thie. Prior to joining
the EPA, Holmstead was a lobbyist for the electric industry.
Even now, the EPA's Seattle office has not done a news release on
the benefits of Clear Skies to Washington state.
Iani, the EPA regional director, said Clear Skies is an important
national policy, even if it has little impact in Washington state.
"While it doesn't have a dramatic effect in the West, it does
elsewhere," he said.
Les Blumenthal: 1-202-383-0008