The Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, is arguably the most successful public health and environmental law ever. The benefits of this landmark legislation have far outweighed its costs. But the Bush administration is engaged in the most serious effort to roll back the Clean Air Act since its enactment.
When the Clean Air Act became law, compromises were made in order to get it passed. One of these was grandfathering in thousands of the oldest and dirtiest power plants and refineries, which were allowed to pollute up to ten times more than modern plants. Under a provision called New Source Review (NSR), however, if these dirty facilities expand, they have to upgrade to new anti-pollution technologies and modern pollution-control equipment.
In its latest attack on the Clean Air Act, the Bush administration has moved to eviscerate NSR and allow these plants to expand and pollute even more. On December 30 last year, the EPA issued revisions to the NSR rules, permitting thousands of aging coal-fired power plants and other industrial sites to upgrade without having to install new anti-pollution devices. Slated to go into effect in March, the new rules make all but the most flagrant polluters virtually immune from government legal action. Companies will also be given greater latitude in calculating pollution, reducing the likelihood that new pollution controls will be required.
Maine-taining High Standards: Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins were among the six Republicans who opposed weakening the Clean Air Act in a recent Senate vote.
The NSR changes are just the latest in a broad assault on the Clean Air Act by the Bush administration, which is whittling away at a provision here, a provision there, and enforcing the law tepidly if at all.
Bush outlined his intentions last summer when he unveiled the so-called "Clear Skies" proposal, which was touted as the solution, but would actually result in more air pollution than is currently allowed under federal law.
The day after the EPA's December announcement, nine northeastern states filed suit in federal court to block the new rules from taking effect. The attorneys general of those states-Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont-charged that the administration's rule-making far exceeded its legislative authority under the Clean Air Act and would undermine state efforts to adopt stricter protections.
"This action is a betrayal of the right of Americans to breathe clean, healthy air," said New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. Spitzer charged that the administration's actions would neutralize one of the few effective tools for combating industrial pollution.
The filing put EPA Administrator Christie Whitman in the hot seat. As governor of New Jersey, she had joined other states in seeking relief from midwestern power plants. Now she is defending the new federal rules. Spitzer said the rules would undermine states in prosecuting and settling dozens of enforcement cases that as governor Whitman had joined in bringing.
The states were not the only parties to fight the new rules. In January, Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) introduced a measure that would have delayed the New Source Review changes. The Senate voted the measure down by a 50-46 vote, but tellingly, Republican senators from Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island-all states that are downwind of midwestern polluters-voted for the delay. (So did Arizona's John McCain.) But the measure was opposed by Democratic senators from Arkansas and Louisiana, large timber and refining states, respectively, and Zell Miller of Georgia.
Another rule change the EPA announced, to go into effect later this year, would give older coal-fired plants far more leeway to perform "routine maintenance" and extend plant operations for years without emissions cleanup improvements. The Sierra Club hopes to generate so much public opposition at upcoming public hearings on the proposal that the Bush administration will be forced to drop the "routine maintenance" loophole.
"What Bush is actually doing is promising that things will be better years from now while giving polluters a holiday for at least ten years," says Blake Early, Sierra Club Air Committee chair and environmental consultant to the American Lung Association. "But Americans don't want Bush to 'fix' the Clean Air Act; they want him to enforce it."
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Bush's Clear Skies plan would roll back existing public health safeguards for meeting emission standards, along with key measures protecting local air quality and curbing pollution from upwind to downwind states. NRDC estimates the administration's plan would cause 12,000 more premature deaths each year in the decade from 2009 to 2018, compared with enforcement of current law, and result in additional health damages costing nearly $115 billion per year.
"Under the Bush plan," Early charges, "the hard job of actually reducing emissions and protecting health does not happen until after George Bush is out of office. Pretty much every action the EPA has taken during this administration fits into this general game plan."
But not everyone is being steamrolled by the administration's backpedaling. On February 10, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) took a stand by calling for the Salem Harbor Station power plant, one of the state's dirtiest, to meet a 2004 cleanup deadline.
"If the choice is between dirty power plants or protecting the health of the people of Massachusetts, I will always come down on the side of public health," declared Romney, addressing plant workers at the facility. The Salem plant was to have installed new pollution controls by 2004, but was negotiating to extend that deadline until 2006.
"In 2001 you asked for 2004, in 2003 you asked for 2006, in 2006 you'll ask for 2008," Romney yelled to hecklers in the crowd. "I will not protect jobs that kill people." Pointing to the facility, he shouted, "And that plant kills people."
Clean-air advocates can also take heart from three separate Circuit Court of Appeal rulings in 2002 that found the EPA had illegally approved extensions to cleanup deadlines. The Sierra Club was a plaintiff in all three suits.
"These court cases are examples of a watchful public making a difference," says Neil Carman, Sierra Club air specialist for the Lone Star (Texas) Chapter. "The EPA had allowed states more time for urban areas to meet smog standards, but the courts determined that the deadlines had been extended illegally."
There was also good news from Pennsylvania. Nancy Parks, chair of the Pennsylvania Chapter's clean air committee, reports on a January settlement in Pittsburgh between the EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection calling for stronger limits on pollution from certain industries, and requiring reductions in ozone-producing fumes from various consumer products and gas stations. "It's a health insurance policy for everyone who breathes the air," says Earthjustice attorney David Baron.
Up to Top