AQMD Review Plan Met Skeptically

Staff Reporter

A proposal by the region's smog agency to cut the time it takes to upgrade refineries and build new power plants is getting a skeptical response from industry officials, who think the plan could end up hurting them more than it helps.

The board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District approved a proposed regulation in concept earlier this month that would speed up the environmental review of major projects that might have a substantial effect on air quality. But quick reviews would only be given if project backers agree to reduce expected air pollution beyond what is required by current law.

The regulation, which still must be worked out in detail over the next year, was adopted by the board as part of a larger plan to beef up efforts to reduce the effects of pollution on poor, often minority neighborhoods that are near the region's industrial centers.

Industry officials are worried about what they would have to do to qualify for speedy review, especially since they claim state environmental law already requires projects to use the best environmental controls.

And they question the fairness of moving such projects ahead of others in the regulatory cue that were previously submitted and have met applicable environmental laws especially in an air district with a reputation for slow environmental reviews.

"We think the district should expedite the review of all projects in front of it," said attorney Michael Carroll, who represents the Regulatory Flexibility Group, a consortium of oil, aerospace, utility and auto companies within the region.

Elaine Chang, deputy executive officer of the air district, said many details remain to be worked out, and that the district would work closely with industry to adopt acceptable criteria. "What we are trying to do here is to provide a little bit of an incentive," she said.

Todd Campbell, policy director for the Clean Air Coalition, praised the move as a way to reduce toxic exposures on communities downwind from refineries and other polluters.

The proposal is far from academic. The region's oil refineries face a December 2003 deadline to remove the water-polluting chemical MTBE from gasoline, an effort that is expected to cost billions and require careful environmental review. In addition, despite the recent respite from last year's power shortage, scores of new power plants must be constructed in the future to keep up with projected demand.

Adoption of the rule might cut in half the time it takes to complete an environmental review of a refinery upgrade, which now takes about six months, Chang said.

The proposal marks a turnaround for the district, which pushed through tough environmental justice laws over the last few years over the stiff opposition of industry. The idea here is to instead offer an enticement in return for voluntary efforts to better clean up the air.

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