July 3, 2011

Jonathan Riskind: Boiler rules moved to back burner

WASHINGTON - To proponents of new federal regulations limiting emissions from industrial boilers like those used by Maine paper mills, letting the Environmental Protection Agency complete its work as quickly as possible is a matter of life and death.

At stake in reducing the toxins emitted by boilers is preventing 6,500 premature deaths a year and other health problems, proponents say, and it would be a mistake to delay the final standards from being issued in April 2012.

Industrial boilers use fuels such as biomass and oil to produce heat and steam to generate power at manufacturing plants and places such as universities and hospitals. Emissions from such boilers are the second-biggest source, behind power plants, of harmful toxins such as mercury and lead.

John Walke, clean air director of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "I can't fathom why the citizens of Maine, or any other state for that matter, would want to block the standards to reduce mercury or other carcinogens when the health benefits are so close (to occurring)."

But to critics of the regulations, delaying the EPA rules and giving companies more time to comply with when they take effect is a matter of economic life and death, with tens of thousands of jobs on the line.

Those who want to stay the EPA's hand say they don't argue with cleaning up boiler emissions; they simply want what they regard as more realistic standards.

The EPA said the original rules it came out with last year would have cost $10 billion for industries nationwide to retrofit boilers with air cleaning equipment. The agency revised the regulations earlier this year and said it had cut that cost in half. But industry advocates say the cost really was $20 billion originally and now would be $14 billion.

The EPA seemed to acknowledge industry's concerns in December, when it asked a federal court to allow it to work on the rules for an additional 15 months, until April 2012. That request was denied, and the EPA was ordered to complete the final regulations by late February.

In February, the EPA came out with the revised rules.

But with pressure from industry and some lawmakers, the agency said in May that it would continue to seek public comments before putting the rules in effect. Late last month, the EPA said it wouldn't come out with updated rules until Oct. 31, would accept more public comments and would issue final rules by April 30.

That didn't satisfy critics.

"Congress needs to say, 'Hold on, before you have to install $14 billion in (pollution) controls, make sure you have the rules right,' " said Lisa Jaeger, counsel to the Council of Industrial Boiler Owners.

Three Maine lawmakers agree with Jaeger and other critics of the current boiler regulations.

Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District and GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are calling on the EPA to slow down yet again and -- just as important to critics -- rework the boiler rules yet again. The Maine lawmakers are among those who say it might be necessary for Congress to mandate that through legislation.

The sole Maine lawmaker who wants the EPA to proceed without more delay is Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District.

Pingree said the EPA has considered some of the concerns laid out by her and 113 other lawmakers last summer in a letter to the agency and made changes to the regulations that make them more practical to put into effect.

For instance, the EPA "agreed not to lump biomass boilers here in Maine into the same category as coal-fired boilers in other parts of the country," Pingree said.

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