EPA report faults Bush on air pollution policies

Auditor says agency is hampered in forcing power plants to upgrade

October 01, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

In a sharp rebuke to President Bush's air pollution program, the Environmental Protection Agency's internal auditor yesterday issued a report saying the administration has "seriously hampered" the EPA's ability to force dirty, coal-fired power plants to install pollution controls.

Nikki L. Tinsley, inspector general of the EPA, said that the Bush administration should reconsider the "dramatic" changes it proposed to requirements for old power plants last October and return to the vigorous enforcement of the Clean Air Act pursued by the Clinton administration.

"It is important that ... enforcement against coal-fired electric utilities continue in the same manner and to the same extent as before the 2003 rule was issued," the report states.

Environmentalists praised the report, saying it shows the Bush administration weakened clean air laws and undermined EPA enforcement efforts to save money for power companies. The Sun on Monday reported how Bush's changes helped one of his campaign donors, a subsidiary of the Mirant Corp. of Atlanta, which owns three power plants in Maryland with histories as chronic polluters.

"This should be extraordinarily embarrassing to the Bush administration," said Angela Ledford, director of Clear The Air, an environmental advocacy group, in a news release. "It's not often a president is decidedly rebuked from within his own EPA."

But Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said agency administrator Michael O. Leavitt plans to ignore the report's recommendations because he thinks they are wrong. Leavitt, a former Republican governor of Utah, was appointed by Bush last year.

"We think the inspector general's report missed the point entirely, if we are talking about the best way to get emissions reductions," Bergman said.

The disagreement centers on regulations proposed by the Bush administration last year that would change a 1977 amendment of the Clean Air Act called "new source review." When Congress passed the act in 1970, legislators allowed coal-fired power plants built before that date to continue operating without the modern pollution controls required for new plants.

Lawmakers believed at the time that the older, dirtier plants would eventually be replaced with newer, cleaner plants. But then some power companies began to extend the life of the old plants instead of building new generators with expensive pollution controls. And so Congress added a requirement that any improvements to power plants beyond routine maintenance would trigger a requirement that the plants install modern pollution controls.

In 1996, the EPA began using this "new source review" requirement to target older, dirtier utilities, and this proved to be "an effective approach for requiring utilities to install pollution control devices," the report says.

Seven companies sued by the agency have been required to add air-cleaning systems to 74 power plants, according to the report. The new systems have captured hundreds of thousands of tons of airborne pollutants that cause asthma attacks and other health problems.

Then the Bush administration, in October 2003, switched directions. It stopped filing as many lawsuits, and proposed changes that, among other things, allowed power companies to make improvements worth 20 percent of the cost of a power plant every year without triggering the "new source review" requirements.

Maryland and 13 other states sued, claiming that this overly high percentage would allow older, dirty power plants to essentially rebuild themselves over five years without ever adding modern pollution control equipment.

Bergman, the EPA spokeswoman, said the Bush administration's new policy emphasizes free-market, "cap and trade" pollution credit trading programs, which she said have proven far more effective than the Clinton-era lawsuits brought against older power plants.

In pollution credit trading systems, power plants must pay for the right to pollute over a specified limit, with the cash sent as a reward to cleaner plants. Bush's EPA plans to soon expand a credit trading program with a goal of reducing power plant emissions by 70 percent over the next 15 years.

"The inspector general's report completely ignored these programs," Bergman said. "Going after the power plants, one by one, with lawsuits is too slow, and we don't always win the lawsuits. The best way to reduce emissions is through [cap and trade] programs, which require all of the polluters to reduce at once."

The EPA will continue to pursue seven pending "new source review" enforcement cases, three of which are scheduled for trial over the next year, according to a written statement issued by the agency. The EPA will also continue to file violation notices and lawsuits against power plants.

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