The Environmental Protection Agency is likely to issue this week a final rule governing when upgrades to powerplants, refineries and other industrial facilities also require installing advanced equipment to control air pollution, an agency official says.

The regulation, part of EPA’s New Source Review program, will define when improvements to a plant are "routine maintenance," and thus don’t require the advanced emission-control gear. An EPA official, who requested anonymity, says, "We’re hoping to have [the regulation] signed by the middle of [this] week and we’re probably going to be able to do that."

The Natural Resources Defense Council says the rule will define improvements as routine if the cost of the new work is no more than 20% of the cost of a "process unit," which also would be defined by EPA. But the EPA official says, "We haven’t made a final decision yet."

EPA sent its version of the final rule to the Office of Management and Budget on Aug. 1.

The regulation "is essential for utilities, obviously, because there has been a cloud of uncertainty above what maintenance projects could be done and couldn’t be done," says Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a utility industry group. He adds that the expected rule "creates a bright-line distinction for what can be done in regard to routine maintenance."

Environmentalists contend the new regulation would result in a large increase in air pollution, but utility industry officials say the rule will lead to plant operating improvements and less pollution per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. Maisano says that increased plant efficiency "is a direct reduction in pollution."

The EPA official says that doing maintenance on plants promotes efficiency and worker safety.

If the agency’s Acting Administrator, Marianne L. Horinko signs the new-source rule by the end of August, environmentalists view the timing as an effort to deflect criticism from Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, President Bush’s choice to be EPA Administrator. Leavitt’s Senate confirmation hearing won’t take place until after Congress returns in September from a month-long break.

But utility spokesman Maisano notes, "This is going to be on the administrator’s plate" regardless of the timing. He says the agency chief will have to answer to Congress and also will face lawsuits from opponents of the regulation.

Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), the top minority member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, says, "This latest rule on NSR is just one more flagrant violation of the Clean Air Act and every court’s opinion on this matter. Its publication will amount to malfeasance."

John Walke, director of NRDC’s Defense Council’s Clean Air Project, claims that under the expected new regulation, "Corporate polluters will now be able to spew even more harmful chemicals into our air, regardless of the fact that it will harm millions of Americans."

(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)