By Matthew Daly
Washington — The Environmental Protection Agency is delaying new rules that would impose stricter limits on two key pollutants — smog and mercury — drawing complaints from environmental groups who say the Obama administration appears to be caving in to political pressure from congressional Republicans.
“It is hard to avoid the impression that EPA is running scared from the incoming Congress,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch.
Republicans took control of the House and gained in the Senate in the midterm elections, and many GOP lawmakers have vowed to target the EPA for what they call a series of job-killing regulations. Environmental groups and some Democrats said the administration is delaying the new rules in an attempt to placate GOP lawmakers.
O’Donnell called the delay in the smog rule “a bitter pill to swallow” and said the EPA has had nearly a year to evaluate the rule since it was first proposed last January.
An EPA spokesman denied that politics played a role and said the delays were needed to ensure the agency’s final decisions were grounded in the best science.
While delaying the smog and mercury standards, “EPA is moving forward with a number of national rules that will significantly reduce pollution and improve public health for all Americans,” said Brendan Gilfillan, an EPA spokesman
The rules include steps designed to reduce harmful emissions from cars, power plants and other industrial operations that contribute to ozone formation, Gilfillan said, adding that the delays would not affect public health.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of a Senate clean air subcommittee, said he was disappointed by the delay in the ozone rule, which would mean that strict new standards on lung-damaging smog will not take effect Jan. 1 as expected. The regulations would take effect by the end of July, according to the EPA.
Once in place, the new rules could mean that hundreds of communities far from congested highways and belching smokestacks could join big cities and industrial corridors in violation of EPA air pollution limits. The proposal presents a range for the allowable concentration of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, from 60 parts per billion to 70 parts, down from 75 parts per billion as set by the Bush administration.
The delay leaves millions of Americans “unprotected from harmful ozone air pollution under an outdated, ineffective ozone standard,” Carper said. “This decision also keeps states in limbo about what standards they need to meet, forcing them to continue to postpone significant decisions today to clean our air tomorrow.”
Carper urged EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to move quickly to finalize plans for new ozone air quality standards.
Gilfillan said the new smog standards would help prevent up to 12,000 premature deaths, 58,000 cases of aggravated asthma and save up to $100 billion in avoided health care costs. The proposed standard would replace a standard set by the Bush administration, which many clean-air advocates called inadequate.
According to the EPA, 5,000 deaths could be prevented each year under new rules to limit the amount of mercury and other harmful pollutants released by industrial boilers and solid waste incinerators.
The planned rules are intended to cut mercury emissions in half by requiring steep and costly cuts from companies operating some 200,000 industrial boilers, heaters and incinerators.
Industrial boilers and heaters are the second largest source of mercury emissions in the United States, after coal-fired power plants. The boilers burn coal and other fuels to generate heat or electricity and are used by petroleum refiners, chemical and manufacturing plants, paper mills, municipal utilities and even shopping malls and universities.
The EPA is under court order to issue final rules by Jan. 16, but according to court papers filed Tuesday, the agency wants to delay the rules until April 2012.