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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Clean Air Act

Air Date: Week of

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The Bush administration is reviewing a key provision of the Clean Air Act. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum briefs host Steve Curwood on what the provision means and why it's come under fire.



CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A key provision of the Clean Air Act is being reconsidered under President Bush's energy plan. The provision is called New Source Review. Now, originally, the Clean Air Act grandfathered existing coal-fire power plants, making them exempt from tighter pollution requirements. New Source Review added a qualification to that. It says: Any plants making major modifications, no matter what their age, have to install more advanced emissions controls. Now there's a battle brewing over the future of New Source Review.

Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now from Washington. Hi there, Anna.


CURWOOD: Anna, there's been a lot of pressure from the coal industry about this. They want to see New Source Review done away with. At the same time, a number of companies have been charged with major violations of the law, which they deny. Tell us the story. What happened here?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, over the years, many of the companies did make modifications to their plants. The problem was, most of them weren't adding new emissions equipment as they did it. The companies claim this is because they were simply carrying out routine maintenance, which doesn't require them to add new controls. But in 1999, the Clinton administration started investigating the issue. It's become one of the largest environmental investigations in U.S. history. The administration found the plant's expansion activities had in fact been much larger than anything that could be called routine maintenance.

CURWOOD: Well, how large are we talking about?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, for example, Carol Browner, who was the E.P.A. head at the time, said that one plant spent $60 million on five new furnaces, without adding any new controls. And that was fairly typical of what they found. She said those plants had emitted tens of millions of tons of extra pollutants by violating the rules, and those violations were estimated to have led to thousands of extra deaths. So the administration issued notices of violations with more than 50 facilities, and it filed suit with the companies who owned them. These are companies like Duke Energy and Southern Company--big companies. Just to give you a sense of how big, these companies generate half of the total coal-fired power in this country.

CURWOOD: So, what happened, then, when the Bush administration came along?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: When President Bush first came into office, the companies, they went to him, they explained their case. They said the Clinton administration had re-interpreted the Clean Air Act when it took action against them, and they argued, more generally, that environmental regulations are hurting their ability to generate more electricity. Of course, there are some larger questions surrounding some of those meetings. There's an investigation, ongoing, into Vice President Cheney's energy task force. Some democrats say these meetings were secretive, they were overly stacked with industry, and that environmental groups were for the most part ignored. In any case, following those meetings, when the president announced his energy proposal in May, he asked for a review of the New Source Review provision, and that's what's going on now.

CURWOOD: So, what's likely to come out of this review of New Source Review?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, EPA has held four public hearings across the country. They've been well-attended. They've also held meetings for the various stakeholders. And of course they won't say anything at this point, until they're done with the review. But most of the people I spoke with on both sides of the issue seem to feel it's pretty likely that there's going to be some kind of weakening proposed, if not a wholesale end to New Source Review.

The administration's been talking a lot about making the regulatory system more flexible for power companies. One idea they're pushing is to place caps on certain pollutants, and then to have a market system where companies can trade credits on their emissions. If you read between the lines here, this could end up being their answer to the New Source Review question. Christie Todd-Whitman, the EPA administrator, was talking about this at a recent Senate committee meeting. Here's what she said:

TODD-WHITMAN: Well, it's our feeling right now that depending on where you set the targets, that New Source Review is certainly one of those regulatory aspects that would no longer be necessary.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: So that might give you some indication of where the EPA is headed on this.

CURWOOD: Anna, what about the lawsuits that the Clinton administration and the Justice Department filed against these companies? What's going to happen to those cases?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Along with the review of New Source Review itself, Bush also asked the Department of Justice to take another look at those cases, to investigate, really, whether the Clinton administration did in fact interpret the rules in the wrong way. Some of the companies had already settled their cases before the review was announced, but as you might imagine, there's less incentive to do that now given that their violations could potentially be forgiven. According to some of the companies, government lawyers actually contacted them and said, Hey, wait a minute. Before you settle, wait until the review's finished. Some of these companies were right on the brink of settlements.

The Department of Justice denies that. It points out there was a settlement with one facility just a couple of weeks ago, but, apart from that one, there's been nothing since the president announced the review.

CURWOOD: So what happens next here?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The EPA is supposed to issue their report on August 17th, and the Department of Justice has no set deadline but they're aiming for around the same date. So keep an eye out in the next couple of weeks. But I wouldn't expect this is going to be over when the administration makes up its mind. There are members of Congress who are working on bills that would preserve New Source Review, and some states' Attorney Generals, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, have filed their own lawsuits against these companies. And there's no indication that they're about to back down.

CURWOOD: Thank you, Anna.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, speaking to us from Washington.



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