EPA to reject Texas air permit process

September 8, 2009 2:50:10 PM PDT
The air-pollution permitting process in the nation's largest greenhouse-gas producing state does not adhere to the Clean Air Act and portions of it should be thrown out, federal regulators said Tuesday in an announcement applauded by Texas environmentalists. The Environmental Protection Agency proposed rejecting Texas' flexible permits, which allow polluters to exceed emission limits in particular areas so long as they reach an overall emissions average. The EPA also said it plans to reject other rules, including those allowing polluters to make changes at facilities without the lengthy permitting process that requires public hearings.

"Texas' air permitting program should be transparent and understandable to the communities we serve, protective of air quality, and establish clear and consistent requirements," Lawrence Starfield, the EPA's acting regional administrator for Texas, said in the statement. "These notices make clear our view that significant changes are necessary for compliance with the Clean Air Act."

Texas has major air-pollution problems, thanks to numerous coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and petrochemical plants in and around Houston, assorted other plants around the state, and millions of cars on the road. Houston and Dallas have never been within Clean Air Act requirements for ozone pollution.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -- which has long been at odds with the EPA over permitting -- defended its process as a success.

"Now that the EPA has placed its cards on the table and we finally know what specific objections they have with our programs, we look forward to working with them to resolve outstanding issues," agency executive director Mark Vickery said. "We hope the EPA will consider the actual emission reductions achieved through our state programs and will continue to build on those successes."

Environmental groups have for years criticized the permitting process as a rubber stamp in a state that's friendly to industry. The state agency's commissioners have approved 97 percent of the air permits that have come before them since 1971, although TCEQ officials note that the vast majority of permits sought don't even make it to commissioners.

"We're not surprised at this and we've been pushing for this for quite some time," said Neil Carman of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Our concerns had fallen on deaf ears under the Bush administration EPA, but we have new leadership at EPA and they're taking action. This is just the beginning. The whole program has problems."

Andy Wilson, the global warming program director for the group Public Citizen, called the announcement "the day of reckoning that we've known has been coming."

The EPA's rejections are set to become final next year, after a 60-day period for public comment. In the meantime, the EPA will work with the state agency, industry and environmentalists to "quickly identify and adopt changes that will better protect air quality for all Texans."

The EPA made the announcement as the result of a lawsuit settlement forcing the agency to approve or disapprove aspects of the Texas permitting process, spokesman Dave Bary said.

States are required to enforce the federal Clean Air Act, but they're given some flexibility in how to do it. The EPA approved Texas' major clean-air permitting plan in 1992, and the state has since submitted more 30 regulatory changes.

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