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Save Your Breath 

The EPA says changes to the Clean Air Act will improve air quality nationwide. Local environmentalists call it a gag order for Louisiana.

The prospect of moving away from her hometown, Norco, saddens Iris Carter. But she's getting out nonetheless because fear for her health is stronger than sorrow.

"I was born and raised here; my mom was raised here and my grandmother, too, and this is home for us. I'm a little emotional about leaving," Carter says. "I'm gonna be moving in with my son for a little while and breathe some fresh air in Metairie. ... Maybe (one day) the air will be clean in Norco, and I will move back home."

Carter is among the residents near the Orion Refining Corp. in Norco who accuse the facility of regularly releasing toxic pollutants into the air. She's also among the critics of the recent announcement by the Bush administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it would relax parts of the Clean Air Act designed to reduce air pollution from industrial facilities.

Carter and others charge that the policy changes to the portion of the act known as "New Source Review" (NSR) will give such industries more ability to monitor themselves and, therefore, more room to pollute.

The EPA, which made the announcement Nov. 22, insists the amendments to NSR will make it cheaper and easier for plants to upgrade their technologies and install better pollution controls, ultimately resulting in cleaner air. "There's a whole lot of misinformation out there," says EPA Counsel to the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum. "These are important issues to people, issues that create a lot of emotion, and it's easy for the real facts of what's happening to get lost."

Carter's not buying it. She doesn't trust the industry now. She believes emissions from the nearby refinery caused the rare autoimmune disorder -- scleroderma -- that killed her sister and the respiratory problems that contributed to her mother's death six months later. Her trust certainly won't improve if refineries, power plants and other industries have freer rein to act as their own watchdogs, Carter says.

"New Source Review was one thing that needed not to be tampered with. They needed stronger and more stringent regulations against these companies, not looser ones," she argues. "These companies have the money to buy their way, and people are sick and tired of living with this. ... We have the right to clean air. We're not telling them 'you can't produce.' We're saying you can't do it at the cost of my health."

In the past few weeks, eight attorneys general from northeastern states have threatened to sue the federal government over changes to the New Source Review, saying the rollbacks will diminish air quality in the Northeast. Environmental groups and major newspapers denounced not only the NSR reforms, but also President George W. Bush and the EPA's chief administrator, Christie Todd Whitman, neither of whom were present the Friday afternoon the EPA announced its NSR revisions.

The EPA, however, insists the changes will only enhance the original intent of NSR -- to require industrial plants to install modern pollution-control technology whenever they upgrade beyond routine maintenance and cause emissions to increase, i.e., whenever they create a "new source" of pollution.

Over the years, industries have complained that NSR requirements are cumbersome, complicated and prevent improved energy efficiency in power plants and factories because they require costly technological improvements for every upgrade. For years, industries by and large managed to avoid NSR requirements until the EPA, under the Clinton administration, began cracking down on violators.

Now, the EPA argues that without some of the NSR's stringent pollution controls, plants have more incentive to upgrade to newer and more energy-efficient technology. "EPA is taking actions now to improve NSR and thereby encourage emissions reductions," Whitman said in a statement.

The EPA's Wehrum urges the public to visit the EPA Web site (www.epa.gov) and read materials under the heading "Improvements to the New Source Review Program." The changes are "going to improve the program both from an administrative and environmental standpoint," he says.

"Anyone involved in implementing NSR, if they're being honest, would admit the program can be made better for a couple reasons. One is that this is a program that's been around for a long time; it started in 1975 ... and the EPA, from the mid-70s onward, had implemented regulations, policy guidelines, memos; there's been a long history of evolution here. And if you're someone brand-new to the topic, it can be very difficult for you to figure out what the rules are because a lot of it evolved over time and is reflected more in administrative guidance documents than in regulations and statutes," Wehrum says.

"The program applies across the board. Whether you're a refinery or power plant or a guy who makes Tastykakes, you're subject to NSR, and we had to create a program that applies to the diversity of industry in the United States," Wehrum says. "That added to the difficulty of making the program."

But Aaron Viles, field organizer for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's Gulf States division, calls the EPA's explanations doublespeak. He says he can't imagine air pollution decreasing if pollution controls are stripped away. "Industries completely got what was on their Christmas list, and everyone is amazed at how far the administration has gone," he says.

"This is exactly the type of move which would have infuriated Christie Whitman when she was governor of New Jersey," says Viles, noting the New Jersey attorney general is among those threatening to sue, "and now she's saying this will be helpful?"

Viles predicts that Louisiana, with its 1,000-plus industrial plants, will suffer a decrease in air quality after NSR rollbacks. "Right now we have 15 parishes where the air quality doesn't meet the newest federal ambient air quality standards, so the fact is these utilities will have new loopholes to let them pollute even more."

If you ask Louisiana Bucket Brigade executive director Anne Rolfes about New Source Review, she'll describe months of unsuccessful lobbying of Louisiana's congressional delegation from environmental groups, including hers, concerned about NSR changes.

"The Louisiana congresspeople are not necessarily supportive. They're sympathetic to the community members when you're in front of them, but as soon as you leave their office they're doing things that don't help the people, that help the industry." She points out that Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat, originally co-wrote a 2001 letter asking Vice President Richard Cheney to alter New Source Review.

Rolfes, whose organization collects air samples in plastic buckets from neighborhoods surrounding the Orion refinery, believes the rollbacks to NSR will mean no less than life-and-death situations for "fenceline" residents of industrial plants. She points to a recently released community health survey, taken among residents of New Sarpy neighborhoods next to Orion, as evidence.

The study surveyed 74 New Sarpy residents on their health conditions and compared their responses to those of an age-matched group in the 1999-2000 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Health Statistics.

The New Sarpy health survey, supervised by Chicago toxicologist Dr. Peter Orris and Patricia Meeks, a master's degree candidate at Tulane University's School of Public Health, showed that the residents surveyed reported asthma about three times higher than the national average and chronic bronchitis at five times higher. Conditions such as frequent cough and frequent mucus, wheezing and headaches were also markedly higher on the New Sarpy survey than on NHANES.

Orris, professor of internal and preventive medicine at the Cook County Bureau of Health Services, wrote that "it is likely that the releases of chemicals, known to cause these conditions, from the petrochemical plant on their door step are the source of some if not all of the health effects identified."

"This for us is just a screaming, screaming alarm," Rolfes says. "People have been complaining, but now we have actual proof and the science to back up what their fears are. If this isn't a call for action, I don't know what is."

Orion spokeswoman Joy Patin says no one from the facility has seen the survey and so she couldn't comment on it. Although an Orion environmental manager was present at a Nov. 18 meeting in which the New Sarpy health survey was released, he didn't receive a copy of it, Patin says.

"We would like to see the information because we have what we consider a very good relationship with the New Sarpy and Norco community," says Patin, who maintains that Orion began a community advisory panel and has not heard health complaints from panel members. "Their concerns are about how the facility operates, just what the environmental components of the processing facility are, and that kind of thing. Anne Rolfes does not live in that community. We are in direct communication with the people, and if you talk to any of the neighbors you'd get that feedback." Patin also says Orion's pollution technology is already state-of-the-art, and the facility does not plan any upgrades in the near future.

Iris Carter acknowledges that Orion has made overtures. "They're saying they're putting in new (air monitoring) equipment, so hopefully this will change things. But as of now it's stayed the same. I'm just hoping and praying that these things are instituted because they talked to us and said they're making efforts to try and improve things."

The air in Louisiana certainly hasn't been pristine in recent years. Last summer, the EPA hit Orion with a notice of violations to the Clean Air Act, saying its 82 flaring episodes over a two-year period were excessive. Patin had responded the flares were due to "start-up issues" related to the refinery's reactivation after years of dormancy.

In December 2001, the EPA also cited the ExxonMobil plant in Chalmette with a violation of NSR regulations; an EPA spokeswoman last week said the agency is still enforcing the old NSR standards and is continuing to investigate the violation. In late 1999, the five-parish area surrounding Baton Rouge failed to meet the Clean Air Act standard for ozone, or smog; the EPA has given the area a 2005 deadline to comply.

Rolfes points to Clean Air Act violations in Louisiana as examples of why "we need more enforcement, not a destruction of the law." One of the more troubling aspects of the new NSR program, she says, is that it changes the calculation for a plant's emissions baseline -- the maximum amount of pollution that a facility can emit before it triggers NSR controls.

Under the previous regulations, baselines were calculated according to a plant's average emissions in the previous two years. Under the new regulations, an industry can select any 24-month period in the past 10 years from which to determine its baseline.

"That allows polluters to look at the two highest years in the last 10 years and average that," Rolfes says. "It allows you to pick the worst-case scenario."

Wehrum, of the EPA, argues the old NSR contained a loophole that let industries choose any period of time for its baseline emissions if "circumstances in the immediately preceding two years are not normal operations," he says. "The way it will work in the future is, you can select any 24-month period in the immediate 10 years -- but any number you select has to be adjusted downward to account for any new emissions units at that plant. That's most often left out when people talk about this issue ... the old regulations don't require you to do this adjustment."

He insists the previous NSR had created "a strange disincentive" for industries to pollute less -- a deterrent the new regulations are designed to remove.

"You trigger NSR if your future emissions (increase) as compared to your past emissions," Wehrum says. "So the way you minimize your chances of triggering NSR is to make your baseline emissions as high as you can. If you had a goal to avoid NSR, one way you can do that is to emit as much as you legally can today."

New Sarpy resident Harlen Rushing has never heard of New Source Review. He does, however, complain bitterly about the air quality in his town. "I was here before the plant came here, and it's not right for them to violate our air," he says. "There are some pretty good odors around here all the time, invading our house, from the oil refinery. ... I'm pretty sure the sinus trouble and nausea I got has something to do with that."

Rushing says he knows of few refinery workers living in the area surrounding the facility and wonders why, if the air quality is safe, refinery employees tend to live so far away.

"Most of the big shots up there, they live in gated communities. They wouldn't want me to put an oil refinery 25 feet from their house; they'd fight me tooth and nail. They like the work down here, but when the evening comes and it's time to go home, they cross the lake."

click to enlarge TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
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