Lifting Pollution Curbs Won't Unleash Toxins, U.S. Regulator Says

A top Environmental Protection Agency official defended the Trump administration’s decision to relax a decades-old air pollution policy, a move that critics said would unleash toxins such as benzene, lead and mercury.

"It doesn’t appear that’s going to happen as a practical matter," Bill Wehrum, the assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Wehrum last week reversed a decades-old EPA policy that said once sites qualify as "major sources" of hazardous air pollution -- and are required to take special steps to control it -- they always qualify, even if they subsequently changed production processes or installed controls to keep toxins in check.

More than a decade ago, when the EPA last considered scrapping the policy, regional offices warned officials in Washington that facilities would backslide and take less stringent approaches to controlling emissions if allowed. The agency backed off that earlier effort after criticism from public health advocates and some states.

Utilities had complained that the "once-in, always-in" policy, as it was known since it was adopted in 1995, was punitive and discouraged facilities from making improvements that would put them under the pollution threshold, since they would still be required to employ high-tech controls to rein in hazardous compounds.  

Environmentalists said the Trump administration’s policy pivot would unleash toxic air pollutants, potentially encouraging facilities to pare their emissions to just below the "major source" requirement as a way of avoiding stringent control requirements. "This is among the most dangerous actions that the Trump EPA has taken yet against public health," said John Walke, the clean air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Wehrum said the reversal was justified because federal law did not authorize the policy and some industries have so radically changed their production processes that they no longer would be able to "crank up emissions."

Senate Democrats are expected to press EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to explain the policy change in a hearing Tuesday.

— With assistance by Ryan Beene

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