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EPA Puts a New Cap on Pollution

The agency says the rule will sharply cut power plant emissions, mostly in the Northeast. The action prompts rare environmentalist praise.

March 11, 2005|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration moved Thursday to sharply reduce air pollution from power plants that emit nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, issuing a rule that the Environmental Protection Agency said would eventually prevent 17,000 premature deaths and tens of thousands of heart attacks and hospitalizations each year, mostly in the Northeast.

The action produced a rare moment of broad praise for an administration that has clashed repeatedly with environmental groups -- although some advocates said the White House could have done more.

"It will deliver the biggest reductions in smog-forming ozone and fine-particle pollution from U.S. power plants in 15 years," said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense. "What a great way for Steve Johnson to begin his tenure at the helm of EPA by signing this rule."

Johnson is the acting EPA administrator and President Bush's nominee to hold that job on a permanent basis.

The new Clean Air Interstate Rule caps emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides across 28 Eastern states and the District of Columbia. The EPA anticipates that reductions will come mostly from cuts in power plant emissions.

The rule also sets up a trading system, similar to an existing program for acid rain, under which the states will set emissions caps for individual polluters. Those that produce more than their share of emissions will be able to buy credits from those that are producing less than their allocated share. They may also choose to install new pollution-control equipment or switch to less-polluting fuels.

In addition to imposing the caps, the new rule sets stringent emissions monitoring requirements, accompanied by penalties for noncompliance.

When fully implemented by 2015, the EPA said, the new rule would reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in the covered states by more than 70% and nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 60% from 2003 levels. The agency said the lowered pollution levels would annually prevent 17,000 premature deaths, millions of lost work and school days, and tens of thousands of nonfatal heart attacks and hospital admissions.

The regulation "will result in the largest pollution reductions and health benefits of any air rule in more than a decade," Johnson said.

The EPA plans to issue another rule next week that would require coal-fired power plants to reduce their mercury emissions. That rule would provide "the first-ever national cap on mercury emissions from power plants and result in a 70% decrease in mercury levels," President Bush said Wednesday during an address on energy and the environment in Columbus, Ohio.

The EPA issued its new clean air rule only a day after a key Senate committee failed to approve Bush's controversial Clear Skies Initiative, which would have rewritten the Clean Air Act and done on a nationwide basis some of what the EPA rule will do in the Northeast.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee deadlocked 9-9 Wednesday on Bush's plan, meaning it could remain bottled up in committee indefinitely. One Republican and an independent senator joined with Democrats to stall the measure.

Like the new EPA rule, the legislation would limit emissions of certain pollutants and establish a trading system for pollution credits.

But environmentalists and some lawmakers said the legislation was flawed because it would allow industry to upgrade power plants without installing state-of-the-art pollution controls. Opponents also said the legislation did not do enough to halt global warming and would move too slowly to reduce dangerous pollutants, such as mercury.

Bush said in Columbus that the EPA rule would "provide some of the same benefits as Clear Skies, but they are not a substitute for effective legislation."

On Thursday, Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), a member of the environment committee, welcomed the EPA rule, but he called for additional steps to further reduce pollutants.

"This rule represents a small step forward in reducing pollution from old, dirty power plants, but the administration has chosen to exercise only part of its authority to control damaging emissions," Jeffords said in a statement. "Full and responsible enforcement of the Clean Air Act would have required significantly greater reductions from the oldest and dirtiest plants sooner."

But Sen. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the committee's chairman, called the EPA rule "inferior" to the legislation that Bush wanted. He said the regulation would "result in more litigation, uncertainty and fewer lives saved than the Clear Skies bill."

Industry and environmental groups noted the rule's limited geographic scope, and called for more action from Washington.

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Times staff writer Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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