Stop stalling, start scrubbing

March 21, 2006

The Bush administration would call its policy of allowing aging utilities to expand and upgrade without triggering federal pollution controls "pro-business." Mountains of statistics on respiratory illnesses and premature deaths attributed to emissions from those old coal-fired plants show that the policy would have a decidedly less positive impact on health.

Now a federal appeals court has weighed in with the harshest judgment so far on the administration's rationale for ignoring a law it could not get Congress to change: "Only in a Humpty Dumpty world" could the executive branch substitute a clear legislative directive with an interpretation that is vague and ineffective, said a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which moved unanimously last week to block the Bush policy.

Clear enough, certainly, for administration officials to take the cue and call off a legal and political battle they don't seem to be able to win. Notwithstanding the zeal of the administration's effort, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, to spare owners of utilities, refineries and factories the expense of installing scrubbers, such improvements may turn out to be good business as well as good public policy. Given the high cost of energy, it seems plausible that old plants could install the latest equipment - to protect the environment by cleaning their emissions and by making their operations more efficient - and still turn an impressive profit.

In Maryland, state officials are moving to impose - by regulation, legislation or both - clean air standards on locally based smokestacks that are tighter than the federal law.

Marylanders would have much to gain, though, if the Bush administration used its enforcement authority to prompt a cleanup of the decades-old coal plants in the Midwest. Maryland was among the more than a dozen states that sued the Environmental Protection Agency, charging it with illegally allowing those plants to expand without cleaning up the foul emissions that blow eastward and contribute substantially to asthma and other health problems here.

Cleaning the air is a gargantuan task that requires sacrifice all around, including most everyone who drives a car or truck - another leading source of pollution here.

But bringing those old power plants - including some in Maryland - into the 21st century is an obvious first step. It's nice to see one of the nation's most respected courts lend its credibility to the cause.

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