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Democrats Want Probe on Bush Admin Clean Air Policy

Published by MAC on 2003-11-10

Democrats Want Probe on Bush Admin Clean Air Policy

Story by Chris Baltimore, Reuters News Service

November 10, 2003

Washington - A new top U.S. environmental regulator was sworn into office on Thursday amid Democratic demands for an investigation into a Bush administration decision to drop air pollution enforcement action against 50 coal-burning power plants.

In an about-face, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday acknowledged that it will apply less stringent pollution standards to cases brought against some utilities for Clean Air Act violations.

Word of the change trickled out on Wednesday, the day before former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt took office as EPA administrator. Leavitt replaced Christine Todd Whitman, who was often at odds with the administration's environmental agenda.

Democrats called for a probe of the EPA's failure to enforce the previous, stricter rules. They also said the new rules could endanger ongoing cases, where utilities face billions of dollars in dirty air fines.

Emissions from coal-fired power plants and refineries can aggravate asthma, chronic bronchitis and pneumonia. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, asked EPA inspector general Nikki Tinsley to investigate. Schumer, whose state is downwind from large coal-burning utilities in the Midwest, also called on Leavitt to freeze the decision.

"By taking these steps, the EPA is basically telling these power plants that they have carte blanche to pollute at will," Schumer said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said the White House policy was intended to "coddle the big polluters, and the public be damned." New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, also a Democrat, asked the EPA to hand over files on the cases so his office could pursue them. "The (utility) industry has been given a get-out-of-jail free card," Spitzer said in an interview with Reuters.

EPA officials have repeatedly insisted that the changes in the so-called New Source Review section of the 1970 Clean Air Act will not change the tenor of the cases.

On Wednesday, the EPA flatly denied it had made any across-the-board decision to drop enforcement actions and said it was "vigorously pursuing" violations filed by EPA lawyers against utilities. On Thursday, an EPA spokeswoman said some cases would be dropped.

"We are fully expecting there will be some (cases) that will be set aside," she said. The EPA and the Justice Department are still pursuing cases brought by the Clinton administration in 1999 against aging power plants over past violations of the Clean Air Act.

Complaints forwarded to the Justice Department by EPA enforcement staff could be dropped, involving companies including utilities like DTE Energy Co. and Reliant Resources Inc. .

The EPA's relaxed rule allows companies to replace aging equipment with their "functional equivalent" without triggering expensive pollution-reduction requirements.

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