Accused by environmental groups of trying to undermine the federal Clean Air Act and weaken state air pollution laws, Gov. Bob Riley and the state’s congressional delegation have petitioned the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to approve a new version of Alabama’s smokestack law “without delay.”
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has been seeking federal approval for the rule change since 2003, when ADEM’s Environmental Management Commission adjusted the existing smokestack law at the behest of major air polluters in the state, including the power, paper, chemical and cement industries.
But for the last five years, the EPA has refused to approve those changes, citing concerns that they will lower air quality in Alabama. The rule cannot take effect until EPA approves it.
While EPA officials said the agency couldn’t comment on a pending matter, an agency document in the April 2007 Federal Register states that Alabama’s proposed change could result in “an increase in particulate matter emissions,” or soot. For that reason, and because the state did not prove the new rule would comply with the federal Clean Air Act, EPA wrote that Alabama’s change was “not approvable as submitted.”
Negotiations between the EPA and ADEM have been ongoing since then, resulting in a new proposal Riley described in a June letter to the head of the EPA as “in fact, added protection over the previous” ADEM proposal.
Officials with the Alabama Environmental Council, which seeks to block the change, say it would authorize power plants and other large industries in the state to legally exceed their current pollution permits up to 2 percent of each calendar year without fear of being penalized for violating the Clean Air Act. In addition, the changes are designed to let industries emit higher average levels of soot from their smokestacks each day than they were legally allowed under state rules in place since the 1970s.
Asked to explain how allowing more pollution into the state’s air would improve air quality, Riley’s staff directed the Press-Register to ADEM, writing that the agency, “has told the Governor’s Office this won’t have a negative impact on air quality.”