Critics of Bush EPA Policies Challenge Easing of Air Quality Rules

More in this Section

Hotline, Summer 2002

by David Fowler, GASP Board Member

The battle between the Bush Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leadership and advocates of higher air quality continues to grow in intensity.

The U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee in late June voted to set strong limits on three main pollutants emanating from power plants: mercury, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to production of acid rain and smog, respectively, and fine particulate soot. And for the first time, the committee voted to put a cap on the plants’ release of carbon dioxide to counter their contributions to global warming.

With these actions the committee leads opposition to the Bush EPA decision to relax the Clean Air Act’s emission restrictions on older coal-fired power plants and refineries. Persuading Congress to follow its lead will, of course, be another matter.

But the committee also prepared to subpoena the Bush Administration for materials related to its so-called Clear Skies proposal to relax EPA restrictions on those emissions.

Staff members complained that materials provided to the committee thus far by the EPA relating to the decision were useless. Chairman James Jeffords, (I-VT), said that unless the Administration produced relevant materials, the committee would subpoena EPA records of interagency discussions and meetings and correspondence from outside interest groups.

EPA officials said that they intended to provide more information to the committee, but that the Office of Management and Budget first needed to review the proposed rule changes. That process could take as long as three months.

The EPA is still reverberating from the resignations of two top officials who objected to its current easing of pollution restrictions. The most recent was that of Robert Martin, the EPA’s hazardous waste ombudsman. He quit the agency in April 2002, accusing it of trying to obstruct investigations that might make the EPA and its director, Christine Todd Whitman, look bad. Whitman, faced with a conflict-of-interest suit brought by Martin, had reassigned him to a lower level job and ordered his files confiscated.

Martin had filed a suit in federal court in January, charging that Whitman had stated falsely that the air around the World Trade Center was safe in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, saving millions of dollars for an insurance company owned by Citigroup, Inc., linked financially to a venture capital firm run by her husband, John Whitman. Martin also charged that the EPA had made favorable deals with Citigroup over Superfund cleanup sites it owns.

Chief EPA regulation enforcer Eric Schaeffer resigned in Feburary 2002, as reported in the Spring Hotline edition. Schaeffer had protested that, under Whitman’s leadership, the agency’s effectiveness in enforcing existing pollution regulations was being sapped.

Both Martin and Schaeffer had joined the EPA during the Administration of President George H. W. Bush, the current President’s father.

And in a recent development, North Carolina became the first southern state to impose new air pollution standards on the older coal-fired power plants, following the lead of several other states in applying more rigorous standards on emissions than those of the federal government.

The state’s governor, Michael F. Easley (D), signed bipartisan legislation this June that would require 14 major power plants to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 74% and nitrogen oxide emissions by 78% by 2013. These reductions go far beyond federal standards for cutting air pollution.

The payoff for utilities in the state: in return for absorbing most of the $2.3 billion cost of new pollution controls, an agreement with the state to freeze utility rates at their present unusually high level for the next five years.

During the past two years, four other states-New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Illinois and Connecticut-have approved legislation to force reductions in power plant pollution in the absence of federal action. Interestingly enough, Texas in 1999, while George W. Bush was governor, had adopted legislation that cut smog emissions by 50% and acid rain and soot emissions by 25%.

But that leaves a substantial number of southern and northern states with dirty air, including those bordering the Ohio River Valley, which, until recently, were targeted for enforcement of stiffer standards on older coal-fired plants by the EPA. With the easing of pressure by the Bush administration, their compliance with effective regulation remains in serious question.