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EPA rule aims to curb release of chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a new rule requiring U.S. chemical plants to cut by 88 percent the amount of toxic substances they emit into the air.

If companies comply fully, the overall reduction in toxic emissions nationwide should exceed 506,000 tons a year, EPA officials said Tuesday. As a byproduct, the regulations will reduce the amount of volatile organic compounds _ which include the unburned auto fuels and evaporated solvents that are the main source of urban smog _ by a million tons a year.

"This is the equivalent of taking 38-million cars off the road _ about one-fourth of all cars in America," agency administrator Carol Browner said.

The new regulation, called the Chemical Manufacturing Rule, is one of the most important of a wide range of new regulations required by the 1990 Clean Air Act. Implementation of the rule was delayed, and environmental groups filed suit to force compliance.

The new regulation, announced in time to meet a court-ordered deadline, gives existing plants three years to achieve the emissions levels of the cleanest one-eighth of U.S. plants. New facilities will have to comply immediately.

The rule could lead to dramatic improvements in air-quality standards, particularly in Texas, Louisiana and New Jersey, where chemical plants are heavily concentrated. In Baton Rouge, La., for example, home to dozens of chemical and petrochemical manufacturers, more than 200 pounds of toxic chemicals per person are emitted annually, according to EPA records. The area has one of the highest cancer-mortality rates.

Clean Air Act amendments passed by Congress mandated the EPA to regulate emissions of 189 toxic air pollutants by the turn of the century, including formaldehyde, benzene and chloroform. Tuesday's action, which covers 112 pollutants, is the agency's first step in fulfilling that mandate.