WASHINGTON -- Handing industry its second victory over the Environmental Protection Agency in a week, President Bush has decided to allow companies to increase emissions of pollution without notifying the public, administration officials said yesterday.
If, as expected, the proposed pollution rule is adopted, officials of environmental groups said they were likely to challenge it in court.
Drafted to carry out the 1990 Clean Air Act, the pollution rule is one of at least a dozen important regulations that the EPA and the White House have been fighting over since the law was enacted.
Led by Administrator William K. Reilly, the EPA argues that the law was a mandate from the public to aggressively cut toxic air pollution.
Industrial executives argue that the law's provisions are too costly, and they have enlisted the President's Council on Competitiveness, led by Vice President Dan Quayle, to insure that the regulations are written in such a way as to reduce the costs to businesses as they emerge from the national recession.
The proposed rule would give companies immediate authority to increase toxic air pollution above the permitted level by up to 80,000 pounds annually once they have notified state environmental agencies, EPA officials said yesterday.
States would have 28 days to approve or disapprove the notification. If the notification is sent on by the state, the EPA would then have 17 days to approve or disapprove. The president exempted companies from having to notify the public or hold public hearings, said an EPA official who insisted on anonymity.
Yesterday, several corporate officials praised the decision, saying an 80,000-pound increase of toxic emissions represents a tiny percentage of the overall toxic chemical levels poured into the atmosphere from large chemical installations.
Typically, refineries, bulk chemical plants and other petrochemical complexes legally emit millions of pounds of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere each year under permits written by states.
The battle over allowing companies to increase toxic air pollution above their permitted level had been the most heated so far.
Mr. Reilly argued that the 1990 Clean Air Act specifically requires the public to be notified and to have an opportunity to comment if a company increases the levels of toxic air pollution above the levels authorized on its operating permits.
Last summer, E. Donald Elliott, then the EPA general counsel, concluded in a legal memorandum that courts would uphold this interpretation of the law.
Mr. Quayle and his staff at the Council on Competitiveness interceded on behalf of business executives who contended that allowing the public to comment on what they called "minor" increases in air pollution from factories would be unduly costly.
Such public reviews often take months and would hold up worthwhile changes in manufacturing practices, said members of Mr. Quayle's staff in interviews last month.
Last week, Mr. Bush decided the issue in Mr. Quayle's favor, according to the White House and EPA officials. His decision was disclosed yesterday in the Washington Post.
Environmentalists said they were prepared to sue the environmental agency over the regulation.
David D. Doniger, a lawyer in Washington for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: "Increasing pollution is the most fundamental change you can make. If you change permits in this way without involving the public, then permits are hardly worth the paper they are printed on."
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, had already filed suit against the administration, contending that the Competitiveness Council has violated the Clean Air Act by holding up regulations and ignoring the requirements of the law.
Mr. Reilly's spokesman, David L. Cohen, said: "We pursued the permit issue as far as we could. A decision has been made. We will abide by the decision."