WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency issued its final rule yesterday to relax a central requirement of the Clean Air Act, and was promptly sued by nine states, including Maryland, that say the change would amount to government approval for Southern and Midwestern plants to pollute their air.
"This action by the Bush administration is a betrayal of the right of Americans to breathe clean, healthy air," said Eliot Spitzer, attorney general of New York. "I join my colleagues from other states to challenge this assault on the Clean Air Act."
The rule change would allow power companies and other "smokestack industries" greater latitude in upgrading and expanding older plants without installing expensive new pollution-control equipment.
The requirements are spelled out under a Clean Air Act provision known as "new source review." It requires old industries that were originally "grandfathered" out of the Clean Air Act to be regulated as "new sources" of pollution whenever major changes or enlargements are made to plants and factories.
Disagreements between power companies and the EPA over what constitutes plant expansion and modernization, as opposed to routine maintenance, led the EPA to file a series of lawsuits against seven electric power companies in 1999, seeking to force them to install modern pollution control equipment.
Spitzer and the attorneys general of Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maryland asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to set aside the rule change, arguing that only an amendment to the law by Congress could legally bring about such sweeping changes.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the Bush administration was trying to "appease the energy industry by sacrificing the lives of people in the Northeast," who he said receive "none of the power but all of the pollution" from plants in the Midwest.
EPA spokesman Joe Martyak told the Associated Press that the final rule "will be a positive for the environment." He said of the lawsuit, "There are those who would reach the conclusion that this appears to be more of a political step than based on other reasons."
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a power industry lobbying arm, said the suit was an attempt by Northeast politicians to impose financial disadvantages on residents of states in the Southeast and Midwest.
"The unit cost of electricity is lower in the Southeast and the Midwest than it is in the Northeast," Segal said, "and they will do whatever they can to increase competitive disadvantage for states in these regions."
He said rules that would require that automobiles use gasoline that is reformulated to produce less air pollution "are being fought by these self-same attorneys general."
Publication of the rule in the Federal Register yesterday formalized changes announced in November by EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.
At the time, Whitman said the changes would lead to more efficient industrial operations and give owners of power plants, refineries, chemical plants and factories greater flexibility in improving the operation of their plants.