Bush gives power plants a get-out on pollution control

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The Independent US

The Bush administration is planning to overturn a key provision of the Clean Air Act, in effect giving industrial companies a green light to update their facilities without regard for pollution controls, according to a White House document leaked yesterday.

The measure would save firms hundreds of millions of dollars while significantly increasing industrial emissions and almost certainly contributing to global warming.

At least until it was leaked, the administration's Environmental Protection Agency was due to make its final ruling on modifying the 1972 Clean Air Act in the next few days. It appears the White House wanted to draw as little attention to the change as possible, choosing a moment when Congress is not in session and when the position of EPA administrator is temporarily vacant.

Critics nevertheless wasted no time in denouncing the administration's plans. Jim Jeffords, the Vermont senator who quit the Republican Party within months of President George Bush coming to power, described the proposed new ruling as a "flagrant violation" of federal law. Eliot Spitzer, the attorney general of New York state, told The New York Times he would sue the administration as soon as it came into effect. He said: "This makes it patently clear that the Bush administration has meant all along to repeal the Clean Air Act by administrative fiat."

The administration itself has refused to comment, saying the ruling was still under review. According to the leaked document, first obtained by a high-profile environmental lobbying group, the EPA plans to expand the definition of "routine maintenance" on industrial plants to include major overhauls and new equipment. "Routine maintenance", exempting companies from environmental protection controls, would be defined under the new rules as anything up to 20 per cent of the total cost of the whole facility.

According to the lobby group, the National Resources Defence Council, the new rules would invalidate a slew of recent litigation brought against power plants by the Justice Department. It would also give power companies - among the administration's staunchest supporters - virtual carte blanche to expand their facilities as they please.

"The Bush administration, using an arbitrary, Enron-like accounting gimmick, is authorising massive pollution increases to benefit Bush campaign contributors at the expense of public health," said John Walke, director of NRDC's Clean Air Project.

The measure would be the latest in a series of rollbacks of key environmental protection regulations. Already in the works are plans to rewrite the Clean Water Act in ways that would allow industries to dredge, fill or dump waste into streams and wetlands, according to the NRDC. The Pentagon is also seeking sweeping exemptions from federal environmental laws for its military bases, including exemption from an estimated $28bn (£17.7bn) in litigation costs arising from previous violations.

Intriguingly, the looser Clean Air standards have been the subject of an internal fight within the administration over the past two years. They were staunchly resisted by Christine Todd Whitman, the EPA administrator who resigned earlier this summer after one fight too many with her deregulation-happy adversaries.

The anti-clean air lobby has been led by Dick Cheney, the Vice-President and architect of the administration's much-debated national energy policy. He appears to be taking advantage of Ms Whitman's departure, and the hiatus before the arrival of her nominated successor, Mike Leavitt, to push the new rules through.