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EPA air-toxics plan sparks internal rift

A draft rule would weaken clean-air standards, officials say. Their memo could figure in Senate hearings Wednesday.

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The Environmental Protection Agency has drafted a plan that would allow so much extra industrial air pollution that 7 of 10 of the agency's own regional air-quality directors have signed on to a memo condemning it.

While disagreement on policy issues is not unusual, former EPA officials say the regional directors used particularly strong language in criticizing the plan developed on William Wehrum's watch in a December memo, which surfaced Monday.

The stinging internal criticism is likely to pop up Wednesday at Senate confirmation hearings for Mr. Wehrum, who is nominated to become the nation's top air-quality officer.

The plan proposes loosening limits on toxic emissions from scores of industrial sectors, including refineries, chemical plants, steel mills, and smelters.

The changes, the memo said, would "essentially negate" today's limits on industry toxic air emissions like arsenic, mercury, and lead, also called "hazardous air pollutants" or "air toxics."

Such poisons are considered by the Clean Air Act to be far more dangerous to public health than air pollutants like nitrous oxides or sulfur dioxide.

Under today's requirements, any facility emitting more than 10 tons per year of a single toxin, or 25 tons of several toxins, must install pollution control equipment to cut emissions by as much as 95 percent. The new plan would allow large polluters that previously had brought emissions down below the 25-ton limit - say, to 2-3 tons - to boost emissions, as long as they remained under 25 tons.

Criticizing the plan as an unjustified "drastic change" in emissions rules, the memo cites Wehrum's office for a "trend of excluding" regional offices from rule and policy development that was "disturbing."

If adopted, some environmentalists say the new plan would blow open the most significant new hole in the Clean Air Act since the Bush administration's reinterpretation of the act's "new source review" provision, which curbed power plant emissions.

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