New Challenges for Stationary Emissions and Stack Testing Regulations

bluesky_stack_When the Environmental Protection Agency announced its proposed new carbon dioxide emission regulations in June, the news grabbed headlines and U.S. industries' attention. States and their politicians immediately denounced the Clean Power Plan proposal, saying its costly rules will hurt consumers and businesses and drag economic growth down.

The EPA has primarily focused on mobile sources, such as vehicles, and large stationary ones, such as power plants, in reducing carbon emissions. This has largely overshadowed what individual manufacturers are facing with regard to  emissions from their stationary sources such as smokestacks. The regulations for these emissions, which are monitored through the process of stack testing, are currently in flux too.

A stack test measures the amount of a specific pollutant being emitted by a facility, as governed by certain sections of the Clean Air Act. A specialized stack testing consultant is brought in to sample a gas stream during normal operating conditions and determine a pollutant emission rate, concentration, or parameter. The goal is to ensure that the highest emission or parameter values for each tested substance are in line with limits set by the EPA. Complete testing, which requires three samples, will help a manufacturing facility know what steps to take, if any, to mitigate emissions and avoid fines.

The Emissions Measurement Center (EMC) maintains a database of test methods for measuring specific pollutants from smokestacks and other industrial sources.

Stack Guidance Is Stationary  for Now

The Clean Air Act (CAA) Stationary Source Compliance Monitoring Strategy (CMS), which governs stack testing, was last revised in September 2010 with input from the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA) as well as regional state and local organizations. This past summer, changes were proposed by the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, whose mission is fostering better national consistency in developing stationary source air compliance monitoring programs while, at the same time, offering states and municipalities some flexibility in how they address local air pollution and compliance concerns. The federal government's Clean Air Act National Stack Testing Guidance was last updated in 2009.

The EPA was criticized in the past for not offering robust enough guidance for national compliance. It's a complex issue, according to Rich Trzupek, principal consultant for Trinity Consultants Inc., and whether or not more regulation and "clarification" are required depends on whom you talk to.

"There are no all-encompassing 'stack test regulations,'" Trzupek told ThomasNet News. "What the EPA has is a long, long list of stack test methods that are used to measure specific pollutants in specific situations."

The challenges, going forward, will involve changes to detection limits, which may foster changes in testing methods in the near future.

"The EPA has set -- and I think will continue to set -- National Ambient Air Quality Standards that are incredibly low for certain air pollutants," Trzupek said. "Incredibly low ambient air standards equate to incredibly low emissions limits for emission units that may contribute regulated pollutants to the ambient air. Sometimes, sources are required to demonstrate compliance with these incredibly low emission limits, and the test methods commonly used to demonstrate compliance are not sensitive enough to do so in many cases."

Manufacturers, energy providers, and other companies -- along with the companies that conduct the mandatory testing -- will be challenged with ensuring that they have ways to meet standards, and the onus will be largely on them to do so.

"The EPA has pushed ambient air quality standards ever downward since the inception of the Clean Air Act," Trzupek noted. "As this evolution continues, finding ways to prove that emission rates are correspondingly low will be more and more of a challenge."

What these challenges may do is render the process of stack testing less of a commodity and more of a value-driven service.  The standard procedure of issuing a request for proposal (RFP) and picking the lowest cost will continue to work only for the easiest and most well-established tests.

"So if a source must determine nitrogen oxide emissions (a common pollutant), using EPA Method 7E (a method everybody performs, all the time) on a gas-fired boiler (hardly a mysterious process) and the compliance line is drawn at a few hundred parts per million (well in the butter zone for Method 7E), then going with the low bidder makes sense," he said.

If, however, the process involves less common pollutants, new methods, and smaller amounts of pollutants, stack testing consultants will have an opportunity to differentiate themselves from one another, and manufacturers will have to be more careful with the partners they choose.

"If a source must determine mercury emissions (a much less common pollutant), using EPA Method 30B (a relatively new method that requires some skill and care to do well), on a process that involves some exotic new way of combusting biomass (creating another unknown) and the compliance line is drawn at a few parts per trillion (at the edge of what the method can do) then finding the best, most experienced testing contractor is the way to go," said Trzupek.

Flexibility Is Given for States

Some of the proposed revisions involve giving states and cities more flexibility in testing rules in order to better meet local needs. While all states must meet minimum standards set by the EPA, some choose to be more stringent than the federal rules require. Some in the industry simply don't believe that it makes sense to force testing on smaller manufacturers (call them "third-tier" organizations) to the same standards as very larger emitters such as power plants, steel mills, and oil refineries.

"I think it's a waste of time and resources to demand that sources in that third tier produce emissions data as accurate as those in the first and second tiers," noted Trzupek. "They just don't matter. Some states get that. Others not so much."

As ever, politics are likely to dictate what happens in the coming years for states and localities when it comes to federal and local rules for stack testing and stationary emissions. A lame-duck president may be looking for an environmental legacy to attach to his name, while Congress may continue to try to ensure that EPA rules grow no new teeth.

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