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.

"These are important rules that will protect us from toxins like mercury and lead in the air and are necessary for public health," Pingree said. "I do think the government should help support the development of new technology to help reduce air pollution so the burden on industry isn't too great, but I don't think delaying implementation of the rules is the right solution."

Michaud has signed on to a bipartisan House bill to require the EPA to re-examine the rules and work on them for another 15 months. It also would give companies five years to bring boiler emissions into compliance with the new regulations, rather than the existing three-year window.

"We need to take responsible actions to protect public health and our environment," Michaud said. "But we need to do so in a reasonable way that does not jeopardize our efforts to create jobs and get the economy back on track."

Collins is working with a bipartisan group of senators to craft similar legislation.

"The manufacturing sector in our country is still struggling and the last thing we should be doing is imposing very costly new regulations when we can improve the quality of our air without imposing such onerous and costly rules," Collins said.

Snowe said she will need to study the Senate bill that Collins and the other senators propose. But she agreed that legislation "may well be needed."

The uncertain and halting path of the EPA's work on the boiler rules shows an "irrationality" that may require Congress to step in, Snowe said.

The American Forest and Paper Association argues that the rules issued by the EPA in February would burden the industry with at least $5 billion in capital equipment costs and billions more in operating costs and cause, nationwide, "tens of thousands of job losses in the forest product sector alone."

In Maine, Keith Van Scotter, CEO of Lincoln Paper and Tissue, said he is concerned that the EPA rules as they stand could set up his company to fail. His main concern is that the new rules would bar him from using a backup boiler that runs on oil. He needs the backup boiler just a few days a year, when one of his two main boilers, which run on biomass fuel, is out of commission.

That backup boiler's impact on the environment is not even detectable, and the cost of replacing it is unaffordable for a 400-employee company with slim profit margins, he said.

"One of the reasons our entire industry has asked the EPA to re-look at these things is really to try to get the regulations to the point where a properly run boiler in a real world situation, with the right control equipment, can achieve the regulations," Van Scotter said. "The EPA has made some steps in the right direction but they need to do more."

Boston-based Sappi Fine Paper North America, which employs nearly 1,200 Mainers at mills in Skowhegan and Westbrook, says it has similar concerns. Its president and CEO, Mark Gardner, who met recently with Collins and Snowe, said the proposed regulations would force Sappi to spend millions of dollars to retrofit the boilers in Skowhegan. He said the mill already is "highly energy efficient" because its use of mostly renewable fuels means a "very low carbon footprint."

Gardner said the regulations could jeopardize jobs while the proposed legislation "would allow the EPA more time to set realistic standards."

Frank O'Donnell, president of the Washington-based Clean Air Watch, said a "sophisticated and aggressive lobbying campaign" against the boiler rules by industry groups is distorting the issue and persuading the Obama administration and the EPA to try to slow them down.

The rules should have gone forward this year, as the federal court ordered, O'Donnell said.

"The EPA has identified very significant health benefits from the cleanup" of industrial boilers that also carry major economic benefits: "Thousands of premature deaths avoided, asthma attacks avoided, workers not having to call in sick," O'Donnell said.

But now it is "clear (the Obama administration) is in full retreat and trying to appease members of Congress chomping at the bit to stop this."

MaineToday Media Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

jriskind@mainetoday.com

 

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