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Lay of the Land

Protecting Alaska's Tongass | 10 Reasons to Protect our National Forests | W Watch | Clean Air Act? | Jack Morrow Hills | Using Up the Planet | Bold Strokes | Children Pay Price for Pollution | Fuel Economy | Updates

Nothing But Brown Skies

Bush offers big breaks to air polluters

By Gordy Slack

In the predominantly African-American town of Port Arthur, Texas, flares and fireballs light up the night, and a string of refineries pumps toxic waste into the sky. "I panic and I can’t catch enough air," says Port Arthur resident Annie Edwards. "If I go outside, it’s worse. I have to strap on my breathing machine at night so I don’t pass on while I sleep."

Under changes to the Clean Air Act proposed by the Bush administration, the air in Port Arthur will be allowed to get dirtier. A key provision of the act known as "new-source review" requires dirty old plants to modernize their pollution controls whenever they expand or increase their emissions. In June, the administration announced plans to redefine how increases in emissions are measured, opening big loopholes for industrial polluters. The effect will be to exclude from review even major pollution increases from more than 16,000 industrial sources.

"Emissions rollbacks are being handed out to industries like candy," says Eric Schaeffer, former director of regulatory enforcement for the EPA. Schaeffer resigned in February to protest the administration’s backsliding on clean air; he was followed in July by Sylvia Lowrance, a senior deputy in the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance who was involved in previous efforts to prosecute new-source review violations.

At the same time he’s rolling back new-source review, President Bush introduced an initiative called "Clear Skies," now working its way through Congress. Although sold as an effort to strengthen the Clean Air Act, Schaeffer calls it "a bait-and-switch maneuver." While new-source review covers all polluting industries, Clear Skies is limited to power plants. It would set new caps for nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. But contradicting an oft-repeated Bush campaign promise, the plan fails to address the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.

Bush’s proposal also allows plants that want to exceed their allotments to buy pollution credits from those that aren’t polluting as much as the new caps allow. This provision would allow a coal-burning plant in Ohio, say, to buy polluting credits from a downsizing plant in Florida. The marketplace does its magic, and kids in Ohio still get asthma. This provision is especially bad for the mostly low-income and minority people who live near power producers that could buy credits, as Schaeffer puts it, "to pollute as much as they want."

A better alternative is the Clean Power Act, introduced by Senator Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), which calls for greater reductions in pollution a decade sooner than President Bush’s scheme. The Jeffords bill also requires a substantial cut in CO2 emissions from power plants, which would be an important signal to the world that the United States is finally ready to do something about global warming. (It does, however, contain an unfortunate emission-trading provision.)

"Too many people are dying from cancer," Port Arthur activist Hilton Kelly told Congress earlier this year. "Too many people have thyroid problems. We have two dialysis clinics in this small town, and it’s time for the citizens to say ‘enough is enough,’ and it’s time to do something about it." If Congress follows the Bush administration’s lead, it will do something: It will make the problem worse.

A new Sierra Club report, "Leaving Our Communities at Risk," examines how the Bush administration’s changes to toxic-waste cleanup and clean-air laws affect 25 communities across the country. See

Is Your City’s Air Safe to Breathe?

Increasing evidence in recent years has tied air pollution to asthma and other respiratory ailments, particularly among children. In 1997, the EPA set new standards for soot and smog, and started keeping track of cities that exceed those levels.

Since then, however, the EPA has neither implemented the standards nor informed citizens in more than 140 polluted communities that their air is hazardous to breathe. So the Sierra Club is doing the job for them: Find out if your city is on the list at

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