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For WA Oil Refineries, What Qualifies as Air Pollution?

May 24, 2012

SEATTLE - If you can't meet the requirements to regulate air pollution, try changing them. That's what plaintiffs in a recent lawsuit say the state of Washington is attempting to do.

Last year, environmental groups sued the state for failing to regulate emissions from five oil refineries, and a district court judge agreed with the groups. This week, the Ecology Department has proposed changes to the state's plan for curbing air pollution.

A plaintiffs' attorney in the original case, Janette Brimmer with Earthjustice, says Ecology now wants to change the definition of an "air contaminant."

"For this federal Clean Air Act stuff that the lawsuit was about, it's not going to include greenhouse gases anymore. It won't include hazardous pollutants. It's only going to include pollutants for which there are National Ambient Air Quality Standards, and that's a small handful."

The refineries along the coast, owned by major oil companies, are Washington's second-largest source of greenhouse gas pollution, emitting carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Ecology already regulates sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants.

The judge ruled that the state and regional clean-air agencies in Washington have been violating the Clean Air Act by not requiring the refineries to use "reasonably available control technologies" to reduce air pollution. Brimmer, who represented the Washington Environmental Council in court, says Washington could be a leader in cleaning up its air - but not if the state continues to stall.

"We could do it in a way that is reasonable for the industry that's involved. Because it's really about efficiency measures at refineries, it ultimately actually benefits the refineries. They'll save money if they do the kinds of pollutant controls that we are talking about."

The proposed changes will be open for public comment, and also will have to be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposal can be viewed online at Definitions are on pages 5 and 6.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA