State agency warns DEP that smog controls are too lax

A state agency is warning the Department of Environmental Protection that its plan for controlling smog-forming emissions from coal-fired power plants and other large sources is likely to be unacceptable, based on federal regulators’ comments that the proposed limits are “too lax.”

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission said last week that based on concerns raised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which will have to approve the final rule, “it does not appear that the proposed regulation will be viable” as a revision to the state’s plan for complying with national air quality standards.

“The EPA comments include strong warnings that the proposed regulation is not acceptable,” the commission wrote.

Pennsylvania is required to update its restrictions on industrial emissions of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, and volatile organic compounds — which react in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, or smog — because the state doesn't meet federal ozone standards that are designed to protect public health and the environment, especially around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

DEP describes high concentrations of ground-level ozone as “a serious human and animal health and welfare threat,” that causes respiratory illnesses, agricultural crop loss and damage to ecosystems and infrastructure.

The proposed rules would apply to about 192 major facilities across the state, including power plants, refineries, large compressor stations along natural gas transmission lines, cement kilns and steel mills.

DEP predicts its proposed rules for reasonably available control technology, or RACT, could reduce allowable annual nitrogen oxides emissions by as much as 158,000 tons and most of the affected facilities would be able to meet the new limits without having to install additional controls. DEP spokeswoman Morgan Wagner said “it is important to note that the potential NOx emission reductions are not actual emission reductions,” which could be smaller since many sources already have sufficient controls to comply with the proposed limits.

But the EPA and several neighboring states said Pennsylvania’s plan allows companies to average emissions across time and facilities in a way that might permit plants to have higher emissions than they do now, even in regions with the greatest air quality concerns and during summer, when the ozone risk is highest.

They also criticized Pennsylvania’s proposed limits for being less strict than those of neighboring states. And they said Pennsylvania allows coal-fired power plants equipped with advanced emissions controls to pollute far more than they need to because they are apparently not running their control equipment all the time.

Delaware environmental regulators wrote that emissions wafting out of Pennsylvania “significantly contribute to unhealthy air quality” in their state.

“Not requiring sources to actually operate the control technologies they have already installed defies logic,” wrote Ali Mirzakhalili, the director of the air quality division at Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

The Maryland Department of the Environment skewered Pennsylvania’s plan, calling some of the nitrogen oxides standards “meaningless” and “exceptionally permissive.”

It analyzed federal air pollution data from 2012 and found that by not running their installed control devices Pennsylvania coal-fired power plants added more than 100 tons of unnecessary NOx emissions each day. The new proposal, it said, would actually allow a 33,000-ton increase in annual NOx emissions over 2012 levels, which means the state would not move any closer to reaching the air quality goals the rule is meant to achieve.

“The proposed rule would confer no benefits and is therefore inconsistent with a positive RACT determination,” wrote George Aburn Jr., the director of the Maryland agency’s air and radiation management administration.

Some industry groups commented that they like the rule’s flexibility while others said DEP didn't properly account for all the facilities that would be affected.

The Harrisburg-based Electric Power Generation Association, whose members include major electric generating companies in the region, said DEP has found “an appropriate balance between reducing emissions and providing an economic path forward for Pennsylvania’s electric generators while simultaneously preserving grid reliability.”

The Independent Regulatory Review Commission recommended that Pennsylvania environmental regulators meet with the EPA to learn how to address the federal agency’s concerns to make sure the final, revised rule is a viable one.

The DEP spokeswoman said the department will continue to analyze achievable NOx standards while it reviews comments from about 134 people and groups, including EPA and other states, as it works to develop a final version of the rule.

Laura Legere:

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