WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration issued a regulation yesterday that will give manufacturers broad authority to substantially increase the amount of hazardous pollutants they pour into the atmosphere beginning in the mid-1990s.
The Environmental Protection Agency reluctantly issued the new rule, which had been championed by the President's Council on Competitiveness, a Cabinet group headed by Vice President Dan Quayle. The rule will be central to a system of pollution permits that will be established over the next 10 years under the Clean Air Act of 1990.
Chemical and drug manufacturers, concerned about the costs of meeting standards in the Clean Air Act, had sought the rule, saying they needed a flexible standard so they could make changes in equipment or production practices that might cause them to exceed air pollution limits.
Under the rule, a company can increase the amount of pollution it emits into the atmosphere by up to 245 tons a year without public notice or hearings if it says it is forced to do so by a change in production methods. They can do this by applying for an increase; while the application is pending, the company may go ahead with its plans.
A giant refinery typically emits millions of pounds of pollutants into the air in its normal operations over a year, but small manufacturing plants generally discharge only a fraction of that amount.
The EPA has 45 days to reject the application, and states have 90 days to approve or disapprove.
President Bush often cites the passage of the Clean Air Act as one of the singular achievements of his presidency, a claim he repeated again Wednesday in an interview.
Enacted on Nov. 15, 1990, the law was designed to control virtually every important source of air pollution and substantially reduce health and environmental damage caused by acid rain, smog, urban ozone pollution, toxic chemicals and destruction of the earth's atmospheric ozone shield.
But one of the principal authors of the act, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said that the rule issued yesterday eviscerated the law.
"This is a massive loophole, written for political purposes, that carves the heart out of the Clean Air Act," said Mr. Waxman. He called the rule illegal and predicted that it would be challenged in court.
The new rule was being cited as well by state air pollution-control officials, some Democrats in Congress and national environmental leaders as more evidence for their argument that Mr. Bush has blunted the law's effect. He has done this, they say, by missing legal deadlines for issuing some important rules and altering others to make them friendlier to business.
The Council on Competitiveness has played a central role in the White House's management of the law and has already been a target of separate lawsuits by New York state and Mr. Waxman.
The final rule on permits will not begin to take effect until at least 1995, the EPA said yesterday. States have until November 1993 to complete their permitting programs and submit them to the environmental agency for review.
The agency has until November 1994 to approve state programs. Companies have until 1995 to begin applying for permits, which are to be issued from 1995 through the end of the decade.
The Council on Competitiveness has attracted support from industrial executives and increasing criticism from environmental groups and Democrats because of its growing influence in reviewing, halting, and at times helping to write new regulations, particularly those concerned with environmental safeguards.
Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee acted on a proposal by Rep. David E. Skagg, D-Colo., and voted, 30-18, to eliminate money for the council's eight-member staff.
David C. Beckwith, the vice president's spokesman, said the committee's vote was "harassment," and that the council would not waver in its objectives.
The new rule sets up the framework for states to issuing operating permits to factories, chemical and pharmaceutical plants, refineries, power plants, and other important sources of air pollution.