YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bush Plan on Clean Air Faces Attack in Senate

July 17, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's plan to ease clean-air rules is undermining enforcement cases against older coal-fired power plants, some senators and state officials contended Tuesday. Federal officials denied the charge.

"There is a growing feeling, based on fact, that the administration has sent a very clear signal that polluters can do so with impunity," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said at a joint hearing of his committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

New York Atty. Gen. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, testified that the Environmental Protection Agency's recent proposal to relax enforcement rules under a Clean Air Act program has affected his ability to negotiate settlements in cases against two major plants in his state.

"These policies, regulations, have had a devastating impact on our ability to ensure the cleanliness of our air," Spitzer said.

Officials from the Justice Department and EPA told senators they did not believe the proposal had undercut prosecution of cases against major power plants.

"We are committed to pursuing these cases," said Jeffrey Holmstead, the EPA's assistant administrator in charge of the Office of Air and Radiation.

Outside the hearing, he was asked about how the proposal might affect cases. Holmstead told reporters he would "be surprised if a judge takes that into account."

In fact, the judge presiding over Spitzer's case in January has asked for information on how the administration's proposal might affect the issues in the case. The case accuses Niagara Mohawk and NRG Energy Inc. of violations at two plants in Buffalo.

The Justice Department and the EPA have threatened heavy fines on utilities unless they spend tens of billions of dollars to better control emissions of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide, smog-causing nitrogen oxides and mercury.

Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas L. Sansonetti, who oversees the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, described the regulatory proposals as "irrelevant" with regard to his duty to prosecute.

"I'm going forward. I have no choice," he said.

Sansonetti said he believes the proposals have yet to influence the way companies approach talks.

Vermont Atty. Gen. William H. Sorrell, a Democrat, said the EPA's recommendations to President Bush "will seriously undercut" Vermont's efforts to enforce existing pollution rules against utilities.

But Alabama Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor, a Republican, said he supports Bush's efforts to change a broad program that critics contend treads on states' prerogative.

Los Angeles Times Articles