A group of 12 American states has rebelled against President George Bush and his environmental policies by suing to block changes in the Clean Air Act that will make it easier for industrial plants to upgrade their equipment without paying for anti-pollution devices.
The coalition of states, most in the east of the country, downwind of generating plants and refineries in the Midwest, filed the lawsuit in a Washington DC court this week. They were joined by several large cities, including New York, Washington DC and San Francisco. A separate suit was filed by the state of Illinois, and a collection of environmental pressure groups, including the Sierra Club, was expected to file its own legal challenge yesterday.
At issue is a relaxation in regulations put forward by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in December and published on Monday. The plaintiffs claim that the amendments will lead to an increase in harmful emissions. "It amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card for some of the nation's biggest polluters," said Frank O'Donnell of the Clean Air Trust.
Critics insist that the changes are the most significant made to the 33-year-old Clean Air Act since it was strengthened by Congress in 1990. At the core of the Act were emission ceilings for all big industrial plants. But a "grandfather" clause gave exemptions to facilities built before the Act was introduced. However, even those older plants were to be fitted with scrubbers and other controls if they were modernised or expanded.
It is this stipulation that the EPA wants to relax. During the 1990s, under President Bill Clinton, the EPA strictly enforced the rules. But there was a change of thinking with the arrival of President Bush in Washington. Vice-President Dick Cheney pressed for an easing of the rules to save costs for the energy industry, with which he is closely linked.
The move by Mr Cheney was resisted by the former environment secretary, Christie Whitman. In a memo, which has recently been circulated by environmental lobby groups, she warned that the administration would "pay a terrible political price" if it undercut the rules.
There are more than 500 plants across the US that benefited from the pre-1970 exemptions. Most are power plants, generating about 51 per cent of national electricity.
"We are not going to sit by quietly and allow the energy interests in this country to receive special treatment while so many of our children and elderly are needlessly suffering from respiratory problems," said Tom Reilly, the Massa-chusetts attorney general.
The industry has welcomed the new exemptions. Scott Segal, a spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, said the amendments would make it more cost-efficient for owners to modernise plants to make them more efficient and reduce emissions.
The 12 states involved in the suitare Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.Reuse content