WASHINGTON - The Bush administration yesterday announced a relaxation of clean air rules that will benefit Ohio's coal-fired electric utilities, chemical factories, and oil refineries.
While pro-business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rejoiced, environmentalists said they were devastated and several northeastern states, which say Midwestern-produced pollution harms their citizens, promised to file suit to try to block the new federal regulations.
One of the White House's key allies, New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, has been especially outspoken in his opposition to the rule change.
Prominent Democrats yesterday rained criticism on the administration, saying the White House waited until after the midterm elections to make the announcement because the backlash might have helped Democrats.
Polls indicate Americans are concerned about clean air.
A number of Ohio's coal-fired utilities and plants have been lobbying the federal government for years as part of the so-called New Source Review to modify rules on pollution controls. The issue pits the Northeast against the Midwest.
She insisted the Clean Air Act had to be revised to ease paperwork restrictions and costs that the administration argues have kept businesses and utilities from modernizing facilities.
Unless blocked by the courts, the agency will permit industry to use more lenient levels of pollution over a period of years to calculate whether to install new pollution controls and let emissions be calculated on a plant-wide basis instead of more stringent regulations for separate areas of the plant.
Mrs. Whitman proposed another rule change yesterday that angered the environmental community. She said the Clean Air Act has made the nation's air significantly cleaner, but that it must be reformed to make the “routine maintenance'' clause more friendly to aging plants. Until now, such plants have not had to conform to new technology to make their air emissions cleaner. But if such plants are rebuilt or modernized, new anti-pollution equipment has been required.
The EPA argues that because of the old interpretation of the clean-air law, more efficient, less polluting plants have not been built. The agency, which was roiled by internal disagreements over the issue, will take a more flexible look at requirements for new or modernized facilities under the “routine maintenance'' provision.
The National Association of Manufacturers said EPA's actions are a “refreshingly flexible approach to regulation.'' The group's vice president said the agency's reinterpretation of the law is “a reasoned step toward increased regulatory efficiency and continued steady progress on air quality.”
Kurt Waltzer of the Ohio Environmental Council said the administration's proposal to look again at what constitutes routine maintenance would gut the clean air program.
He said reinterpreting the Clean Air Act as the EPA is doing takes a vital tool away from states to permit them to regulate air quality for ozone and fine particles.
The National Wildlife Federation was furious with the administration's action.
“This is a decision that will literally choke the people and wildlife of this nation,'' said the group's president, Mark Van Putten.
“The increased pollution will be most harmful to children, who are more sensitive to air pollution, and to minority communities, which are located near power plants and refineries in disproportionate numbers.''
Environmental groups said that what the EPA is doing, under pressure from the White House, is to widen a loophole that has permitted coal-fired power plants to avoid modern pollution controls for 30 years.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said, “More than 30,000 Americans die every year from power plant air pollution alone, and crippling the standards will only make things worse.”
The American Lung Association said the Bush administration's new regulations are a “major setback'' for the public's health. The association said 175 million Americans live in areas that regularly violate health standards for smog and soot.
“Relaxing air pollution control rules applicable to 18,000 industrial pollution sources defies basic principles of common sense and good government,'' said John Kirkwood, the group's president.
In February, Mr. Bush proposed what he called his Clean Skies Initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 18 percent over 10 years. The plan called for using more tax incentives to induce voluntary reductions in several forms of air pollution and more opportunity for corporations to trade pollution credits, as they now do to curb acid rain.
Environmentalists countered this was a delay in current standards and would do little to improve air quality for another decade. They also noted that Mrs. Whitman, a former New Jersey governor who vowed to protect the environment at the helm of EPA, was taken by surprise by the administration's stand and its opposition to a global warming prevention treaty.
Yesterday, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D., Conn.), chairman of the Senate's clean air subcommittee until January and a likely presidential candidate, said that Mrs. Whitman has been shown to have so little influence she should resign.
“Governor Whitman has a good record and good intentions, but on her watch this administration has undertaken the biggest rollback in Clean Air Act history and scaled back countless other environmental protections,'' he said.
“Time and again, her advice has been overruled by a White House determined to gut common sense environmental standards. Out of principle and protest, she should step down,” he said.
Possibly signaling a Democratic campaign issue for 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D, Mass.), a likely presidential candidate, said Mr. Bush no longer deserves to be President because of yesterday's announcement.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), a member of the House energy policy, natural resources and regulatory affairs subcommittee, said the new regulations are “another in a long list of lapses in environmental oversight by this administration that will have long-lasting and devastating effects on our nation's natural resources.''