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A document leaked from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the agency is considering a significant change in air pollution rules. It would give chemical factories, refineries, and manufacturing plants new leeway to increase emissions of pollutants that cause cancer and birth defects.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren has more.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

John Walke heads the Clean Air Program for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

Mr. JOHN WALKE (Director, Clean Air Program, Natural Resources Defense Council): I received the documents from some sources at EPA who are very upset about the direction the agency was going in, to allow more cancer-causing pollution into the air and drinking water and food that we eat. And they wanted to make sure the public was aware of this backward step.

SHOGREN: The way the program works now, any factory that emits more than 25 tons of toxic chemicals into the air each year must reduce its pollution as much as it feasibly can. Walke says the draft proposal would give companies that own those plants a break. After they clean up, their only requirement would be to keep their pollution below 25 tons a year.

Mr. WALKE: Take an oil refinery that ten years ago polluted 100 tons of toxic air pollution. Due to the Clean Air Act, that refinery today will emit only five tons of toxic air pollution. Under this EPA proposal, that refinery can increase its toxic pollution from five tons to 25 tons.

Ms. LORRAINE GERSHMAN (American Chemistry Council): We don't believe that there's any incentives for facilities to increase emissions.

SHOGREN: That's Lorraine Gershman of the American Chemistry Council. She says her industry has been pushing the EPA to make the changes described in the draft rule. Under the current rules, even after the factory cleans up, it's still considered a major polluter, and it's required to keep monitoring its pollution and reporting what it learns to the government. Under the draft proposal, these requirements would disappear.

Ms. GERSHMAN: We believe it's EPA recognizing these strides that a lot of these major sources have made in reducing their emissions and realizing that there should be some sort of benefit to that, and that is reducing the administrative burden.

SHOGREN: Lobbyist Scott Segel, who represents refineries, says the proposal will make it extra attractive to reduce pollution below that 25-ton-a-year year cap, so big polluters will work extra hard to get to that goal.

Mr. SCOTT SEGEL (Oil Refinery Lobbyist): There are substantial additional incentives to reduce emissions further in order to get under that threshold of what constitutes a major source.

SHOGREN: But most EPA officials charged with running the air toxics program outside of Washington apparently disagree. Four months ago, they sent a letter to headquarters warning that the draft rule would be, quote, “detrimental to the environment and undermine the intent of the program.” That letter also became public yesterday.

The letter criticizes EPA's draft rule for failing to analyze how many companies might be encouraged to cut pollution and how many might relax their pollution controls because they're already under the 25 ton a year threshold. Walke, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that's no surprise.

Mr. WALKE: Why would you order your staff to find out how bad this could be if you know you're going to do it anyway, and you don't want that answer of how bad it's going to be, to get out?

SHOGREN: In the draft rule, the EPA asserts that plants will not use the rule to increase pollution because they'll want to, quote, “avoid negative publicity and maintain their appearance as responsible businesses.” But EPA's regional air toxic chiefs, in their letter, call that statement unfounded and overly optimistic. EPA officials refuse to go on tape. EPA spokesperson Lisa Lybbert released a statement saying that, Commenting on the draft at this point in the process is like asking us how a cake tastes when we haven't even put the batter in the oven.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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