by Danielle Knight
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
George W. Bush's request to review the Clean Air Act -- considered one of the most important U.S. environmental laws -- could halt government efforts to stop some of the world's largest energy companies from polluting, warn health and environmental advocates.
When the White House unveiled its National Energy Policy in May, Bush directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Energy to conduct a 90-day review of the impact of the Act's regulations on coal, gas and oil power plants.
At issue is a section of the law called New Source Review, which prohibits power-plant operators from expanding old plants without also installing state-of-the-art pollution control devices.
Utility companies are lobbying heavily to dismantle this part of the law because if the regulations are upheld and enforced, it could cost the industry tens of billions of dollars to upgrade their facilities.
The EPA is suing many of the companies for violating the Act. Bush is also calling on the Department of Justice to review these lawsuits.
Environmental and health advocates describe the New Source Review as the Act's heart and lungs. Recommendations stemming from the Bush review are expected Aug. 17.
"The Bush plan would gut the Clean Air Act as well as create more pollution," says Peter Altman, coordinator of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition based in Houston, Texas.
Altman was among environmental activists from the heavily industrialized states of Texas and Louisiana, who descended on the capital this week to urge lawmakers to halt Bush's proposed review.
Many, like Altman, came from Houston, site of numerous oil refineries including the country's largest, operated by ExxonMobil. The average refinery, they say, releases about 250 tons of toxic emissions, including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and small particles that hinder proper breathing.
LaNell Anderson, an activist with the Texas Bucket Brigade, an environmental community organization named after the bucket devices it uses to test the state's air quality, lives near several refineries and chemical facilities. She blames air pollution for the cancer that killed her mother and the immune system diseases that she, her sisters, and her husband have suffered.
"We are being asked to sacrifice our children and our families to corporate profits," says Anderson. "We cannot stand any more from these lawless refineries."
roots of the conflict over the Act stretch back to 1977, when energy companies won an exemption for their older power plants. Industry argued that these aging facilities would soon be retired and pollution controls for these plants would be too costly. To date, few have been closed.
According to the EPA, several older refineries have expanded in recent years without installing modern pollution controls -- a violation of the New Source Review requirements.
"Polluters have broken the law for years and are trying to get their tickets fixed," says Arlene Polewarczyk with the Clean Air Clear Lake group, also based in Houston. "It's our health that's getting run over in the process."
In response, the Department of Justice on behalf of the EPA, filed suit in 1999 and 2000 against dozens of old power plants for violating the Act.
Several state governments and environmental organizations have joined the government in suing the industry. For example, eight states and 17 groups have joined the EPA's suit against industry titan American Electric Power.
Janet Henry, assistant general counsel for American Electric Power, says the company has complied with the Act and that power plants listed in the lawsuit were not expanded but underwent routine maintenance, replacement of degraded equipment or failed components, and other repairs that are exempt from New Source Review requirements.
"American Electric Power believes firmly that these complaints are without merit," says Henry.
Defendants in the lawsuits have banded together to form a new lobbying group called the National Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. The Council has hired Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, to help fight the government lawsuits.
Activists contend that the companies have used litigation to weaken other provisions of the Clean Air Act and to stymie the EPA's efforts to update air quality guidelines.
In 1997, regulators issued new rules intending to strengthen national air quality standards for soot and smog because of mounting evidence that prior standards were inadequate to protect the public's health. The government agency estimated that as many as 15,000 deaths and tens of thousands of respiratory illnesses would be prevented by the new standards for air particles.
Paul Billings of the American Lung Association says the EPA's 1997 conclusions have stood the test of time. "In fact, recent scientific evidence has given even greater cause for concern about these pollutants, linking particles to infant mortality and other serious health effects," he says.
Immediately after the EPA issued the new standards, industry and several states -- Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia -- filed suit against the regulations, arguing that air quality standards should not be based only on public health data but on a cost-benefit analysis.
Eventually, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Act last February. But the Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court to rule on the specific 1997 standards.
"After four years of litigation, it's time for industry's scorched-earth battle against public health to stop," says Howard Fox, an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental law group representing the American Lung Association in the suit.
August 6, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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