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Published: Thursday, 8/28/2003

Cross-purposes on clean air

When it comes to environmental regulation, the Bush Administration can't take yes for an answer.

Just as the administration scored another legal victory against air pollution by coal-burning electric power plants here in Ohio, preparations are being made to weaken the very law just upheld.

Who does this action help? Polluters. Who does it hurt? Anyone who breathes, especially those with such ailments as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and pneumonia.

News reports say the administration is ready to exempt thousands of older power plants from part of a 26-year-old federal requirement that state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment be installed when plants are modified. Oil refineries and some other industrial plants also will be included.

The action is intended to save utilities billions of dollars, even though it may actually worsen the quality of the air we breathe. And it flies in the face of a federal judge's ruling Aug. 7 in Columbus that FirstEnergy violated federal law by failing to add anti-pollution controls when it made major changes to a generating plant near Steubenville between 1984 and 1998.

Several similar lawsuits against utilities are pending around the country. Adoption of the new regulation would undercut these legal efforts, which began during the Clinton Administration to finally enforce the Clean Air Act.

Utilities have been battling the “new source review” provision in the law since it was adopted in 1977. Now they have a close, personal friend - President Bush - in the White House. Two top FirstEnergy officials are major Bush political fund-raisers.

In addition to throwing up roadblocks to prosecution of polluters, weakening of new source review allows some of the oldest coal-burning plants to continue to pollute with impunity.

That's because of a compromise made when the Clean Air Act was passed by Congress. Plants planned or built before 1977 were “grandfathered,” meaning they wouldn't have to install pollution controls until a “major modification” was made. The utility industry, which operates 21 such plants here in Ohio, contend they've only done “routine maintenance,” despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Dilution of new source review while the Environmental Protection Agency is under temporary leadership also seems intended to protect Mike Leavitt, the incoming director, from criticism at his confirmation hearing.

That's just political smog, however. It's clear that President Bush values campaign contributions from industry above the long-suffering lungs of the American people.



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