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Jan 1, 2000 12:00 AM

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Sifting through environmental developments of 1999 is much like watching a Flintstones rerun. It's the same background endlessly spooling along as a familiar plot unfolds in the foreground.

Consider this year's environmental news. In July of 1997 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new national ambient air quality standards, changing the ozone standard from a concentration limit of 0.12 parts per million to 0.08 ppm. But this past May, the D.C. circuit court found the agency had exceeded its congressionally mandated authority. The EPA recently lost its subsequent appeal, and the case appears headed to the Supreme Court. Despite this legal wrangling, most observers believe full compliance is just a matter of time.

"The reasoning was EPA did not have the science to back it up," explains Mark Hammond, environmental compliance team leader with Compliance Management International (Horsham, PA). "But in reality, that standard eventually will be the standard. Back in 1997, people were saying in three to five years this is going to hit and it's going to hurt. Well, we're back to saying that."

New source review--another "old" issue--is also back in the spotlight. Gary Jones, Graphic Arts Technical Foundation's (GATF) manager of environment, health and safety issues, reports an increase in EPA regulatory actions in Regions Five and Six (IL, IN, OH, MI and WI, and TX respectively). "The new source review program requires firms that expand their operations and eventually increase air pollution emissions exceeding a certain level to go through a very detailed federal oversight," relates Jones. "EPA is convinced that some states have let printers avoid rules. Some printers have gotten requests for information. The agency wants a 20-year history--what was added, when it was added, all the supporting documentation." Although larger operations are typically targeted, Jones cautions that smaller shops aren't immune to enforcement efforts.

Hammond cites Title Five air permits as a top concern. The idea was these permits will take all individual press permits and combine them into one, making life easier for the printer and the agency. But EPA has sneaked in significant record-keeping requirements. In many cases, for example, you have to use the agency's method to determine the VOC content of every ink you use. At $65 per test, that's expensive."

The consultant stresses the importance of reading the fine print of new Title Five permits. "Before the permit can be issued, the issuing agency, typically the state, has to publish it for public comment. The company should use that 30-day period to review and negotiate changes. But people get a draft permit, read the first 10 pages of an 85-page document and decide it's boilerplate. The next thing they know, the inspector is knockng at their door wanting to see the tests the printer was supposed to run."

Also, it's important to understand how a permit works. "It's not like a driver's license where you put it in your pocket and drive," observes Hammond. "It's almost a contract of actions you will take over the next five years--recording material usage, calculating emissions and so on. Think of a permit as a schedule of actions you have to take--that would solve more problems than anything."

Both Jones and Hammond expect action soon on shop towel handling rules, another long-standing environmental issue. "EPA is committed to developing a rule on shop towels to provide uniform guidance across the country and encourage solvent recovery," says Jones. We want regulations to cover both disposable and reusable towels." Jones advocates a performance-based, easy-to-understand standard that, if properly followed, would exclude towels from being classified as hazardous waste. The long-awaited standards will end years of Byzantine interpretations of shop-towel handling procedures at the state agency level.

Jones anticipates more relief from regulatory red tape as the efforts of the Pollution Prevention through Permitting Project (P4) come to fruition. "EPA is a gnat's eyelash away from releasing policies that will govern test methodology and all kinds of compliance demonstration issues commonly inserted into permit language," he reports.

PrintSTEP (Printers' Simplified Total Environmental Partnership) pilot programs are slated to get underway in the first quarter of next year in Missouri, New Hampshire and Minnesota. The program, part of EPA's Common Sense Initiative (CSI), does not change the existing environmental emissions or release standards for the printing industry, but instead changes the process of implementing those standards. "We're taking the entire regulatory system and turning it upside down without changing any standards," explains Jones. "The focus is principally on the administration of a lot of rules and the compliance, burden, reports and testing. We want to make it easy for printers to categorize themselves--like the IRS proposal where you could put your tax information on a postcard."

Over the next two years, the pilot programs will work toward establishing a level of regulatory requirements proportional to the level of waste generation and/or emissions, enhanced opportunity for public involvement, plain language tools to assist printers in determining emissions and their regulatory requirements, and a streamlined permitting process. The program strives to "allow printers the flexibility to respond to market conditions and make changes to their operations in a timely manner," says Jones. "The way it is now, a printer under permit who wants to add a new press has to seek permission from the state. The processing of the permit application could take six months to a year, by which time the printer could have lost the business."

A PrintSTEP approach would enable printers to add presses without prior approval--provided emissions remained within a designated category. "This allows people to grow within their category, while finding ways to reduce emissions," notes Jones. "We're going to get feedback from printers, state agencies and the public. Hopefully people will see the benefit and EPA will continue to fund its rollout. It makes a lot of sense."

Apparently Jones isn't the only one who thinks so. Earlier this year, he and fellow members on the PrintSTEP project were given Vice President Gore's Hammer Award. The Hammer Award is given to teams of federal "reinventors" and their partners in state and local government and the private sector for "creating a government that works better, costs less and delivers results the American people care about."

Don't look for too much legislative activity in an election year. Although both the Clean Air Act and Superfund are up for reauthorization (Congress must reauthorize the agencies to develop and enforce regulations), swift action isn't expected. It took about 13 years for the last reauthorization of the Clean Air Act in 1991.

Jones has been working closely with EPA to clarify the agency's interpretation of MACT standards, which were written with flexo and gravure operations in mind. As originally written, the agency's broad definition of flexography could have been applied to litho plants with certain coating equipment. It appears likely that a narrower definition will prevail.

Jones is also keeping a wary eye on EPA's activities on regulations addressing persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals (PBT). EPA has identified 12 priority pollutants, including mercury and lead, for which it proposes more stringent toxic release inventory reporting.

The proposed changes would most likely require the printer to measure the exact concentration of the chemicals. "This rule change will require those printers subject to the new thresholds to file very detailed Form R reports, which is not an easy endeavor," says Jones. "For example, will printers using oxidizers to control emissions from heatset web offset presses be required to test for polyclic aromatic compounds in the outlet gasses? On the surface, it would appear that EPA would require this as well as other expensive testing."

In general, the concern is that printers would be burdened with additional reporting requirements for small amounts of chemicals --e.g., reporting the quantity of mercury found in fluorescent lights, bulbs for plate imaging and lamps for UV curing operations. Jones and other environmental specialists' goal is to get EPA to standardize the PBT identification and selection process as well as re-evaluate the proposed reporting thresholds.

While keeping pace with legislative and regulatory activities is difficult, a proactive approach is essential--and not just for larger printers. "Smaller printers are often in compliance, but they don't have the paperwork to back it up," relates Jones. "By virtue of their size, they have more flexibility--they might be exempt from certain requirements. But documentation is essential. Do you have the shipping records for all hazardous waste shipments? Sooner or later, you can be asked by an inspector to prove what you are doing--why are you calling something a nonhazardous waste? Can you prove that's the proper classification or that you didn't have to have an air permit because you are under the threshold?"

Hammond agrees. "Ninety percent of the problems we see are caused by paperwork issues. When people are getting notices about violations and enforcement actions, it usually has more to do with records than emissions. Very rarely is someone putting out more pollution than allowed--it's almost always a paperwork issue."