Maryland joins lawsuit over EPA regulations

Power plant oversight eased under new rules

October 28, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Maryland joined a dozen states yesterday in suing the Environmental Protection Agency for weakening Clean Air Act rules that limit pollution from power plants, refineries and other industries.

The states, mostly in the East, want to reverse regulations by the Bush administration, officially published yesterday, that make it easier for plant operators to expand or install new equipment without costly environmental reviews.

State officials and environmentalists say limiting the EPA's "new source reviews" to major expansion projects will result in more dirty air and fewer federal checks on emissions that contribute to the Code Red alerts that keep residents indoors each summer.

A dozen environmental groups plan to file a similar suit today. "It's a blatant violation of the intent of the Clean Air Act," said Keri Powell, an attorney for Earthjustice, one of the groups opposing the new rules.

But EPA officials say the new rules will help avoid unnecessary lawsuits by clarifying existing law. "The real impetus of the change is to get a clearer, more reliable set of rules for the power industry so that we can increase reliability, efficiency and safety at the nation's power plants," said John Millett, an EPA spokesman.

The EPA released the new rules in August and published them in the Federal Register yesterday. They will not affect current lawsuits but are scheduled to take effect in 60 days.

Current rules require operators of power plants and other industrial facilities to complete environmental reviews if a planned upgrade is beyond "routine maintenance." Under the new rules, plant operators may spend up to 20 percent of the value of their plants on upgrades without triggering the reviews.

Existing rules have led to confusion and prompted about 50 lawsuits nationwide. Because various courts have interpreted "routine maintenance" differently, power plant operators have become reluctant to plan routine maintenance, said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of utilities.

But state officials say the new rules mean utilities will be able to expand and increase emissions without any federal checks.

Maryland is one of eight states suing the Ohio-based operator of 11 Midwestern power plants for alleged violations of current new source review requirements. That lawsuit, in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Ohio, is scheduled for trial in January 2005, according to Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

Curran could have joined yesterday's lawsuit without approval from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - in general a supporter of the Bush administration. But an Ehrlich spokesman said the lawsuit has the governor's approval because 11 states now send polluted air into Maryland, and a third of the nitrogen dumped into the Chesapeake Bay comes from air pollution.

"The governor just determined that he had to do what was right for our quality of life and for our environment," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich aide.

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