Protecting polluters

November 10, 2003

GEE, WHAT a surprise!

The Environmental Protection Agency is dropping investigations of 50 power plants for past violations of the Clean Air Act because President Bush has weakened standards for the future. Sure, the Bush administration had said earlier that the new rules wouldn't affect enforcement actions already under way. But that assertion wasn't widely believed.

Calling off the EPA dogs was a top priority of the energy lobby in its famously secret meetings with a simpatico Vice President Dick Cheney shortly after the administration took office.

It's taken nearly three years, but the anti-pollution warriors of what House Majority Leader Tom DeLay once called a "Gestapo agency" are now in complete retreat. Not only on utility emissions, but on all fronts of the campaign launched by President Richard Nixon three decades ago to clean up and protect the nation's air, water and other vital natural resources.

Earth shoes are out; gas masks are in.

Champagne corks were still popping last week over the victory by forfeit of the smokestack polluters who refuse to install costly scrubbers when word came of a new Bush plan to remove federal protections from wetlands and small streams. The draft plan could open millions of acres to development, particularly in the arid West, where wetlands aren't very wet.

Meanwhile, back in Maryland, officials of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program sounded an oddly upbeat note about the increased nitrogen pollution levels that washed into the bay this year because of the heavy rainfall. They said it wasn't as bad as they expected, and credited steps to curb nitrogen from farmland runoff and sewage treatment plants.

But that "Hey, coulda been worse" message ignores that a dead zone created by nitrogen-fed algae now covers nearly half the bay, and that efforts to reduce pollution - including nitrogen from the air - are falling woefully behind, rain or no rain.

Bay advocates fear the federal agency that has been a central cleanup partner for two decades may no longer have its heart in the game.

On the smokestack emissions, the good guys may yet prevail. Maryland and a dozen or so other "downwind" states have taken the EPA to court, contending that Mr. Bush exceeded his authority when he allowed aging coal-fired utility plants and oil refineries to postpone installing modern pollution control devices almost indefinitely.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. thinks there is a good chance the states will win, the weaker rules will be thrown out, and the old requirements will be upheld.

But in the meantime, there's no relief from the smog, the respiratory ailments and the dirty air cycling into the bay. And regardless of what happens in the courts, there seems little chance the Bush administration will enthusiastically enforce requirements it doesn't like.

Perhaps the EPA should be renamed the Environmental Pollution Agency so at least we'd have truth in labeling.

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