EPA abandons air pollution cases

New, less stringent rules will apply to old violations

November 06, 2003|By Elizabeth Shogren | Elizabeth Shogren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has dropped enforcement actions against dozens of coal-fired power plants that were under investigation for violating the Clean Air Act and allegedly spewing thousands of tons of illegal pollution into the air, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday.

The Bush administration previously had said it would vigorously pursue the enforcement actions, which were launched by the Clinton administration.

However, the Bush administration recently eased a provision of the Clean Air Act that requires companies to install modern pollution controls when they build new plants or expand or modernize old ones. Under the new policy, the alleged release of pollution that sparked the enforcement would be legal.

For months, top administration officials had said that the new rules would apply only prospectively - past violations would still be pursued.

But EPA officials told regional enforcement officials in a meeting in Seattle on Tuesday evening and in a conference call yesterday morning that the agency would no longer pursue cases of past violations under the old rule.

EPA attorneys were surprised by the change in policy.

"Up until now, people were saying it's business as usual," said one EPA attorney, who participated in the conference call. He spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

The only violations of the old rule that will definitely still be prosecuted are seven cases against electric utilities that are already in court.

"This confirms my worst fears," said Sen. James Jeffords, a Vermont independent. "First the administration weakens our clean air law, and now it won't enforce it."

The announcement provides a tangible example of the impact of the administration's efforts to ease environmental regulations, environmental activists said.

The Bush administration plan would allow companies to spend as much as 20 percent of the cost of a polluting unit on repairing and modernizing it before they would be required to install new pollution controls.

The EPA press office said in a statement: "There has been no decision by the agency to drop all new source review enforcement cases. As the agency has consistently stated, we are vigorously pursing all filed cases and we will evaluate each pending investigation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it will be pursued or set aside."

However, two EPA attorneys and a senior adviser to EPA administrator Marianne Horinko confirmed that the investigations against coal-fired power plants had been abandoned.

Times staff writer Gary Polakovic contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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