Tuesday :: Aug 26, 2003

Clean Air Act Gutting Based on Industry Complaints, Not Science


by Steve

As you may remember from late last week, in its latest environmental outrage the Bush Administration announced that it was planning to relax current requirements for industrial plants to upgrade their pollution control equipment when improving their facilities. The acting EPA Administrator is planning to sign the rule change this week before incoming EPA nominee Mike Leavitt would have to testify on it at his confirmation hearings. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer plans to file a lawsuit to stop the changes when they are issued.

The Bush administration has decided to allow thousands of the nation's dirtiest coal-fired power plants and refineries to upgrade their facilities without installing costly anti-pollution equipment, as they now must do.

Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Marianne L. Horinko said yesterday that she will sign the new regulation next week, and that the measure will take effect this fall. The decision marks an important, cost-saving victory for the utility industry, which has vigorously lobbied the administration for the past 21/2 years to relax the Clean Air Act enforcement program.

That program, known as New Source Review, generated dozens of state and federal lawsuits against 51 aging power plants during the Clinton administration, and forced some of them to agree to install hundreds of millions of dollars of pollution-control equipment.

Now, it turns out that the EPA didn’t rely on scientific or empirical evidence to support its rationale for an earlier weakening of the Clean Air Act last December. It relied upon anecdotal information from the industries that were complaining about the rules, all of which are large campaign contributors to Bush/Cheney.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a report Monday that EPA lacked scientific evidence for its claims that the Clean Air Act's "new source review" program needed revising because it discourages energy-efficiency improvements at plants.

"Because it lacked comprehensive data, EPA relied on anecdotes from the four industries it believes are most affected," the GAO said. "Because the information is anecdotal, EPA's findings do not necessarily represent the program's effects across the industries subject to the program."

EPA planned to announce more changes to the program Wednesday to allow many of the nation's dirtiest coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities to claim more upgrades as "routine maintenance" that do not require more emissions-cutting devices.

Sen. James Jeffords (VT), the No. 2 senator on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the report was another indication that the Bush administration's weakening of the Clean Air Act was unwarranted.

Environmentalists and some states legally challenged the rules, saying the effects on air quality and public health were unacceptable. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, said the GAO report confirms the rule changes weren't supported by scientific evidence and showed the administration has sold out to special interests.

"This report should be the final nail in the coffin of environmental credibility for this administration," he said.

It should also be the final nail in the coffin of Bush’s chances to carry a single state from the Northeast.

Looks like the GAO, which got to slam Dick Cheney yesterday over the energy task force coverup, is getting its revenge any way it can.

Well, it also turns out that several high-dollar Bush campaign contributors from Texas would benefit directly from the pending EPA rule change.

Some Texas industries that have been investigated for failing to install air pollution controls required under federal law could escape prosecution under controversial changes in federal rules expected as soon as this week. Texas regulators and environmental groups said the pending changes, which would allow old industrial plants to avoid adding modern pollution controls when they upgrade certain equipment, could make it difficult to prosecute industries for past actions that would become legal.

Jim Marston, head of Environmental Defense's regional office in Austin, said the rule change the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it expects to adopt "probably amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card for past violations."

"Theoretically, environmental groups can still bring the lawsuits if the EPA won't," Marston said. "But in practice, many judges will say: `How can we fine them millions of dollars to enforce something the EPA now says is no big deal?' "

The EPA acknowledged in 2000 and 2001 that it was investigating at least seven additional Texas petroleum plants for possible violations of the so-called new source review rule. But government lawyers have not filed lawsuits against those plants, which are along the Texas Gulf Coast and in West Texas, and the government has not disclosed the status of those investigations.

In one of the lawsuits that did move forward, Alcoa Inc. agreed in April to pay $4 million in civil penalties and environmental projects to settle allegations that it virtually rebuilt power units at its Rockdale smelter and emitted more pollution, without installing the required controls.

British Petroleum in 2000 and Shell Oil in 2001 also settled violation cases involving their Houston-area refineries. The nation's principal environmental organizations have said the changes amount to the most significant rollback of clean air policy ever.

"This policy will mean more children in Texas will get asthma and more will be hospitalized for asthma," Marston said. "It means old plants will get to pollute more."

One problem is that the pollutants that produce ozone can travel hundreds of miles, crossing state borders, Marston said. Some plants in rural areas, which don't face the ozone reduction mandates of large urban areas, would be able to increase emissions that blow into the cities.

This sad example of political corruption on the part of the Bush Administration has given John Edwards a campaign issue, as he announced that he will fight the attempt to weaken the rule by attaching a requirement that the EPA conduct a health analysis of any proposed changes to any piece of legislation that he can. Since the conservatives want all EPA proposed rules to have an economic impact as the centerpiece of their justification, Edwards’ move to insert a parallel health analysis as part of the justification will have legs with the environmentalists and independents.

Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards said Monday he will fight to protect public health as the Environmental Protection Agency prepares to allow some power plants to modernize without adding more pollution controls. Speaking at a diner crowded with breakfast customers, the North Carolina senator accused the Bush administration of taking the life out of the 1977 Clean Air Act by supporting a new rule the EPA is expected to issue this week.

"The least you can do is have somebody, the NIH or CDC, look at what effect it's going to have on public health," Edwards said, referring to the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "I think they refused to do it because they know what the answer would be."

Earlier this year, Edwards co-sponsored an attempt to delay the rule so experts could study how the change would affect public health. That failed, but he said he will keep trying. "I'm going to attach this amendment to everything I can find," the Raleigh Democrat said.

These steps signal that the Bushies, despite any silly talk from W that he has done well for the environment, have no way to credibly compete for environmental votes. Such a sad record, with this as the most recent example undercut any effort to attract such voters, as well as those from the Northeastern states, or votes from those who place public health issues at the top of their list of concerns. In other words, independents and women.

Frankly, the timing of this reflects rank stupidity on the part of Rove. Although craven, it would have made more sense for Rove to hold off on these changes if possible until after the 2004 election. That is, unless this was nothing more that a pure and simple political payback to your benefactors and checkwriters, especially if you aren’t so sure that you will be around in 2005 to return the favor then.

Steve :: 3:15 PM :: Comments (1) :: Digg It!