by Katherine Stapp
(IPS) NEW YORK --
Bush administration is touting a landmark settlement with a polluting utility as evidence of its commitment to enforce a public health law, but critics say that his own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is trying to gut the measure.
Dominion Resources agreed last week to spend $1.2 billion over the next decade to slash sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from eight coal-fired power plants in Virginia and West Virginia.
The settlement resulted from violations of a key component of the Clean Air Act called the "new source review" (NSR), which forces aging power plants and factories to install cutting-edge pollution control technology when they increase their output or make other major changes.
But under new rules sought by the administration as part of its "clear skies initiative," the EPA estimates that as many as 50 percent fewer facilities would be required to install modern air pollution controls.
"Clear skies" would delay deadlines for meeting public health standards, allowing violations of soot and smog rules to continue until 2015 or later. It has met with stiff opposition from many environmental groups and some members of Congress.
"It's really commendable that Dominion stepped up and decided to be good corporate citizens, but that doesn't change the schizophrenia of the Bush administration," said Joel Finkelstein, of the National Environmental Trust. "The NSR is number one in their sights of what they want to get rid of."
Critics also charge that despite the current settlement, the administration has been lax in enforcing environmental laws. They note that the Dominion case and others that bore fruit under Bush were all initiated during the tenure of Bill Clinton.
A study last fall by Democratic Congressman Edward Markey found that the Bush administration brought nearly 50 percent fewer actions against polluters than were undertaken by the Clinton White House.
Fines settled against polluters fell by 80 percent under Bush, from about $845 million to $165 million, according to the study.
The Dominion settlement was announced on the same day that a congressional advisory panel issued a report urging the administration not only to retain NSR, but to strengthen its impact by ending grandfathering rules for the heaviest polluters, aggressively enforcing NSR's permit requirements for existing facilities and improving EPA and state information systems and public accountability.
The report concluded that the NSR programme works well in controlling air pollution from newly built industrial facilities, but performs poorly in reducing pollution from the nation's oldest and dirtiest factories and power plants.
"Contrary to congressional intent, many large, highly polluting facilities have continued to operate and have expanded their production [and pollution] over the past 25 years without upgrading to cleaner technologies," says the report by the National Academy of Public Administration. "The result: thousands of premature human deaths and many thousand additional cases of acute illnesses and chronic diseases caused by air pollution."
The NSR revisions are now in a public comment period, which ends May 2, after which the EPA has the authority to enact the changes as a new federal rule. So far, more than a dozen states have filed suit to block the new rules from taking effect. Other proposals under the clear skies initiative would require congressional consent.
"The report demonstrates that the new source review program is critical for protecting public health, and that this administration's new regulatory changes will only broaden loopholes and further diminish polluter accountability," said Sen. James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent and ranking member of the Senate environment and public works committee.
Environmental and consumer protection groups stress that greater investment in renewable resources like wind and solar power would ensure a broader, long-term strategy to curb harmful emissions.
Earlier this month, the Washington-based U.S. Public Interest Research Group issued a report showing that a shift to 20 percent renewables by 2020 would cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 19 percent and would save consumers about $4.5 billion.
"The good news is that renewable energy is coming online across the country," said Katherine Morrison, U.S. PIRG's clean energy advocate. "The bad news is that more than 90 percent of our electricity still comes from fossil fuels and nuclear power."
"By diversifying the electricity mix to include renewable energy, consumers would have alternative choices when prices rise rather than being held captive to the volatility of the fossil fuel market," she added.
April 29, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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