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The Nation

Clean Air Act Changes Would Worsen Pollution, Critics Say

Environment: A senator and a former EPA chief aim to block the plan to amend a key provision. Administration officials defend the proposal.

September 04, 2002|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) joined forces Tuesday to try to block a Bush administration proposal to amend a key provision of the Clean Air Act.

Browner told a Senate subcommittee hearing that the agency she headed for eight years under former President Clinton was on the verge of making changes to the Clean Air Act that would make the air "dirtier."

The plan, she said, "abandons the promise of the Clean Air Act--steady air-quality improvements."

Edwards, chairman of the Senate health, education, labor and pensions subcommittee on public health, contended that the changes would be bad for public health. "My intention is to do everything in my power to stop it," he said, adding that he would introduce legislation toward that end.

Browner and Edwards were targeting an administration plan to give older coal-fired power plants more leeway to repair and expand their facilities without triggering the Clean Air Act's "new source review" provision, which would require them to install modern pollution-control devices.

The act, passed in 1970, exempted existing power plants from many of its mandates. But under the new source review provision, it requires plants, including older ones, to update pollution-control devices if the plants are modified in any way that increases smog.

EPA officials, who are awaiting final approval of their plan from the White House, dispute the contention by Browner, environmental groups and congressional Democrats that pollution levels will increase.

They contend that by giving power plant operators more flexibility, the facilities will become more efficient and less polluting.

"We believe the changes we are making will have a positive impact on air quality," Jeffrey R. Holmstead, the EPA assistant administrator for air pollution programs, told the subcommittee.

But Edwards and Browner challenged that assertion and criticized administration officials for failing to produce "empirical" evidence to back up their claims.

Holmstead said the proof comes from a health assessment done in 1996, when the Clinton administration proposed amendments to the program. That assessment determined that the proposed changes would have no effect on the environment. He also said that the Bush administration would release an updated health assessment when it finalizes the rules.

Browner called the 1996 assessment outdated, saying that it predates important scientific advancements that have more definitively tied air pollution to serious illness and premature death.

Scientists now estimate that as many as 30,000 Americans die prematurely each year from fine particulate pollution, which causes heart and lung disease. Power plants are the largest source of such pollution. This pollution also causes hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks a year, scientists say.

Browner also took aim at the Bush administration for trying to equate its plan with what she considered doing while she was head of the EPA.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," she said.

The most important distinction, Browner said, is that the Clinton administration never adopted the changes because it could not find a consensus among the power industry, environmentalists and health care experts on what amendments were needed.

Secondly, she said, the Bush administration chose industries' favorite options and has altered several of them to grant industry even greater leeway, opening up the possibility of large increases in pollution.

For instance, both administrations proposed giving power plants exemptions from the new source review requirements for a period of time if they install a particular type of anti-pollution equipment.

The Clinton administration's version would have granted the exemption for 10 years after the new equipment was installed.

"The goal was to prompt the installation of best emissions controls," Browner said.

The Bush administration would allow plants to use this exemption to cover equipment installed up to 15 years ago, with no guarantee that emissions would not increase.

"The effect of the [Bush] administration's change will be dirtier air than the current program allows," Browner said.

Browner, who has not publicly criticized the administration's policies until now, said she felt compelled to speak out because she fears that the consequences of the changes to the Clean Air Act could be "huge."

Edwards said he was frustrated because administration officials failed to respond to his two previous requests for an analysis of the health effects of the changes, including one that came in a letter signed by 44 senators.

"It is outrageous that this administration treats the legitimate concerns of nearly half the United States Senate--Republicans and Democrats--with such open disrespect," Edwards said.

"It is hard to escape the conclusion that the proposed rule changes amount to a gift for oil companies and power companies, and a kick in the gut for thousands of people with serious health problems."

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