Take the hint

December 29, 2003

MARYLAND AND 10 of its Northeast neighbors are beginning 2004 with an important victory in their drive to stop the Bush administration from blowing new holes in the Clean Air Act.

A three-judge federal appeals panel issued an injunction last week blocking the weakened rules proposed by Mr. Bush from taking effect until a hearing on the issue can be conducted. The injunction is a signal that the court believes there is at least a reasonable prospect that the Bush rules will be struck down permanently.

The administration should take this hint that it needs to pursue an alternate approach to dealing with the coal-burning utilities of the Midwest, which for a half-century have refused to modernize their plants because current law would require them to install expensive scrubbers on their smokestacks.

Electricity industry lobbyists argue that easing Clean Air Act requirements would be a favor to the environment, by removing the financial disincentives to modernizing the plants. More-efficient plants, they say, would burn less coal and thus spew a smaller quantity of harmful pollutants into the air.

But the new rules are drafted so loosely as to ensure that pollution controls could be avoided indefinitely. Greater efficiency of such plants would not be nearly as effective as the scrubbers in ridding the air of harmful emissions that blow east.

The administration's true agenda was made abundantly clear last month when the EPA announced it was dropping investigations of 50 power plants believed to have modernized in violation of the scrubber requirements. Technically, weakening the rules after the fact doesn't get them off the hook. But by proposing the rule change, the Bush folks substantially undermined the government's case.

Last week's court decision turned the tables, however. The tighter rules remain in effect, and the states may be able to get them enforced on their own.

What's needed now is an intervention by that fabled Bush political team. This is a lose-lose battle for the president if he continues to fight in court on behalf of polluting utilities against the health and safety of millions of citizens.

Instead, he should lead the charge to bring the polluters into line.

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