Bush is urged to toughen pollution plan

EPA should increase regulation of old plants, independent group says

April 22, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's effort to make it easier for old power plants to expand without installing new air pollution controls is the opposite of what's needed, a top group of independent managers said yesterday.

Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency should crack down harder on older power and manufacturing plants that are responsible for much of the nation's air pollution, according to the National Academy of Public Administration. NAPA, respected for its dispassionate expertise, said the EPA should require state-of-the-art pollution controls on all plants, regardless of their age, within 10 years.

The Bush administration is "going in an absolutely completely different direction" from what NAPA recommends, said the study's co-author, Lisa Heinzerling, a law professor at Georgetown University. The 188-page report involved two years of study.

Yesterday's report - commissioned by Congress - is a significant blow to one of the Bush administration's most controversial environmental moves: its proposed easing of the Clean Air Act rules that govern expansion of older electric power and manufacturing plants.

The rules cover about 20,000 facilities that are responsible for between 40 percent and 60 percent of major air pollutants, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the auditing arm of Congress. The plants are not required to have the newest pollution controls because they were built before the Clean Air Act became effective in the 1970s. If the plants are modernized, however, then they must upgrade pollution control as well, under existing rules.

On Dec. 31, EPA proposed that these plants should be able to upgrade under less stringent clean-air rules that govern routine maintenance. Utilities cheered EPA's proposal as necessary for cheap power, but environmental activists attacked it as weakening one of the strongest legal tools for curbing big air polluters.

The Clean Air legal regime contains too many loopholes that allow big polluters to operate without reducing emissions, the NAPA report said. EPA's proposal "will only broaden the loopholes rather than close loopholes," said study co-author Suellen Keiner, director of NAPA's Center for Economy and the Environment.

The NAPA report "is a major victory for proponents of environmental control who want to put an end to these loopholes," said Bill Becker, director of a group of state and local air regulators. EPA's proposal would make the problem worse, he said.

Power plant owners disagreed with the NAPA report.

Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of companies that own many of the older power plants, said the NAPA report misinterpreted the 1977 Clean Air Act terms governing expansion of old power plants. "Electric utilities thus far have exceeded Congress' emission reduction targets, despite increased electricity production," Segal said.

The NAPA report was issued on the same day that the EPA announced a record $1.2 billion settlement with a large electric utility over air-pollution controls on old power plants. In a case initiated under the Clinton administration, the Virginia Electric Power Co. agreed to spend $1.2 billion by 2013 reducing emissions from eight coal-fired power plants.

EPA found something to praise in the NAPA report.

Assistant EPA Administrator Jeffrey Holmstead said the report endorsed a fundamental concept behind another Bush administration air pollution proposal: its "Clear Skies" initiative. Last year, the president proposed a radical overhaul of the nation's air pollution laws. He would ditch most regulations in favor of ever-shrinking caps on three major pollutants.

Under that "Clear Skies" initiative, utilities would be allowed to trade "credits" for pollution from plant to plant so long as overall company emissions drop significantly. The NAPA report heartily endorsed that concept as a way to reduce emissions from older plants - but only after all older plants are forced to get state-of-the-art emissions controls, said study co-chairman Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Wisconsin.

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