Exaggerated EPA claims revealed

LES 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 Tribune.

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 headquarters.

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 air regulations.

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 current law."

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 were misleading.

"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, D.C.

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


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