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Inspector General Says E.P.A. Rule Aids Polluters

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    October 1, 2004 Inspector General Says E.P.A. Rule Aids Polluters By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 1, 2004
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      October 1, 2004
      Inspector General Says E.P.A. Rule Aids Polluters
      By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
      http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/01/politics/01epa.html?th=&pagewanted=print&position=

      [W] ASHINGTON, Sept. 30 - In a rebuke of the Bush administration, the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency said on Thursday that legal actions against major polluters had stalled because of the agency's decision to revise rules governing emissions at older coal-fired power plants.

      The inspector general, Nikki L. Tinsley, took direct aim at the administration's revision of the New Source Review rule, one of the administration's most prominent - and vilified - environmental initiatives, saying that it makes it easier for power-plant operators to postpone or avoid adding technologies that reduce polluting emissions.

      The revised rule, made final last year, has not been put in effect yet because of legal challenges. But the report concludes that just by issuing the rule, which scuttled the enforcement approach of the Clinton administration, the agency has "seriously hampered" its ability to settle cases and pursue new ones.

      Ms. Tinsley's report serves as a sharp challenge to Jeffrey R. Holmstead, an assistant E.P.A. administrator who has been the agency's leading proponent of the new rule. Ms. Tinsley said in the report that her investigators found little basis for the new rule and suggested, "This is an excellent opportunity for E.P.A. to fully consider - in an open, public, and transparent manner - the environmental impact of proposed N.S.R. changes at varying levels."

      Appearing before a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Public Works Committees in 2002, Mr. Holmstead said, "We do not believe these changes will have a negative impact on the enforcement cases."

      While the language of the report is critical, the inspector general cannot force the agency to do anything.

      The report also showcased a split in the agency between political officials in the air quality office, which Mr. Holmstead leads, and lawyers charged with enforcement, including some who have left the agency in frustration. Responding to Ms. Tinley's questions about the reasonableness of the relaxed new rule, the air quality office defended it, saying it allowed utilities to improve efficiency, safety and reliability; enforcement officials said the rule would most likely eviscerate the air enforcement program.

      The E.P.A., which was expecting a critical review, released a statement that largely echoed its original response to a draft of Ms. Tinsley's report. The statement said, "The report misses the mark, misleads rather than enlightens the public and portrays a superficial and inaccurate characterization of agency policies."

      Industry groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, which strongly support the new rule, sounded similar tones.

      Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, a trade organization, said in a statement, "It is frustrating that E.P.A.'s own inspector general could so completely misconstrue the purpose of the New Source Review requirements and, simultaneously, shortchange the agency's own success in improving air quality."

      But the report was applauded by environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility, as well as lawmakers opposed to efforts to roll back the rules of the Clinton administration.

      Before the revision of the rule, the E.P.A. had reached settlements with several industrial companies that agreed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars installing modern pollution controls to reduce emissions, and many other companies were in settlement talks with the enforcement branch of agency. Once the agency set the new rules, those companies were no longer under pressure to agree to similar settlements.

      "This report is further evidence that the Bush administration has been trying to gut the enforcement of the Clean Air Act since coming into office," said Senator James M. Jeffords, a Vermont independent who was one of several senators to ask the inspector general to review the proposed New Source Review rules.

      John Walke, director of the Clean Air Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the report "confirms that top political officials at the agency charged with protecting public health had to have known that they were letting power plants off the hook for pollution that shortens lives and triggers asthma attacks."

      Before President Bush took office, the E.P.A. and the Justice Department went after dirty plant operators on a case-by-case basis when investigators determined that "significant" upgrades had been made without adding required cleanup technologies. Under the Bush proposal, the requirement would not be triggered until plant upgrades reached a cost of 20 percent of the value of the plant - even though agency enforcement officials recommended that the trigger be set no higher than three-quarters of one percent.

      Ms. Tinsley, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, said in the report that under the prior case-by-case standard, legal action over a 10-year period resulted in 650,000 tons of reduced emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. She said current enforcement actions could lead to another 2.3 million tons of reductions but that the likelihood of looser restrictions had caused plant operators to put off making upgrades.

      Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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