EPA U-turns on Alabama Smokestack Regulations

by | Apr 8, 2011

Alabama’s plan to alter how pollution emanating from smokestacks is measured has this week been shot down by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a policy U-turn.

The state’s “visible emissions rule” measures the opacity of emissions from smokestacks and determines the amount of pollution coming from them.

The 2008 revision to the rule, which was approved by the EPA that year, altered the legal amount of violations that 19 of Alabama’s major polluters were allowed to make.

Permissible violations, or “opacity limit exemptions”, were changed from one six-minute period per hour to an aggregate of 24 six-minute periods per day. The rule also removed the 40 percent opacity cap during such exempt periods, according to an EPA fact sheet.

These changes effectively allowed pollution at 100 percent opacity for 2.4 hours per day, the factsheet says.

Yesterday – following a legal challenge by a local environmental group – the EPA announced that the revised rules in the Yellowhammer State violated the federal Clean Air Act, and the agency reversed its 2008 decision.

The environmental group that brought legal action has welcomed the agency’s policy volte-face.

Michael Churchman, executive director for the Alabama Environmental Council, said: “Technology is used all over the country to better control emissions and should be required to operate continuously in Alabama.

“I believe that today’s action will significantly help clean up the state’s air and protect public health.”

But Alabama’s environment department and members of the state’s power industry are not happy with Wednesday’s announcement and are planning a legal challenge of their own, according to Al.com

Ron Gore, head of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s air division, told The New York Times: “When you have these huge industrial plants, where the air pollution control devices are so big and complex, we’ve discovered that it is literally impossible to be in compliance 100 percent of the time.

“Under the current rules every little blip in compliance is judged to be a violation,” he added.

And a spokesman for Alabama Power – one of the bodies that will be directly affected by the rule change – believes that the EPA may have inadvertently relaxed pollution rules in the state.

“We agreed to the tougher requirements [in 2008] in exchange for some flexibility,” Alabama Power’s spokesman Michael Sznajderman told Al.com. “We needed the flexibility to be able to get back into compliance quickly and not trigger a violation. We believe we have to pay greater attention to opacity [under the 2008 changes] than we did before.”

Gore told Al.com that he expects a legal challenge as soon as Wednesday’s rule change becomes final.

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