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Great Lakes Article:

US may weaken power plant clean air regulations

By JOHN IBBITSON
Wednesday, January 9, 2002 – Page A8

WASHINGTON -- Politicians and environmentalists in Canada and the United States reacted with alarm yesterday to reports that Washington may soon weaken environmental controls on coal-fired power stations in the U.S. Midwest, the source of much of the air pollution in Eastern Canada and New England.

The New York Times, quoting unnamed sources, reported yesterday that senior officials in the White House have recommended that President George W. Bush allow antiquated power plants to improve their energy efficiency without upgrading their pollution controls.

"I'm extremely disappointed that they're contemplating presenting those recommendations to the White House," Ontario Environment Minister Elizabeth Witmer said yesterday in an interview.

Half of Ontario's air pollution is generated by the United States, principally from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. Ontario issued 23 smog-alert warnings last summer, compared with four the year before.

"While we move forward to do what we can, it's disappointing to hear that those steps are going to be taken in the United States," she said.

The attorneys-general of nine northeastern states called a news conference to condemn the reported recommendation.

"The Bush administration is preparing the most dangerous attack on air quality since the Clean Air Act was adopted [in 1970]," New York Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer said.

Any weakening of the Clean Air Act, he said, would be a "historic, monumental surrender" of environmental quality to cheap energy.

Soon after taking office, the Bush administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to review and update its air-pollution legislation.

The resulting debate within the administration has reportedly pitted EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, said to favour preserving environmental controls on power plants that use fossil fuel, against Vice-President Dick Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, who favour improving energy self-sufficiency by relaxing pollution controls.

Mr. Bush has a background in the oil business and was backed heavily by the energy industry in his presidential bid. While the EPA has yet to table its final report, the results of informal discussion between the agency and the Energy Department have been submitted to the White House, the Times reported. A final recommendation is expected later this month.

A spokesman for the EPA dismissed the Times story as speculation. "We're still finalizing the proposal," Joe Martyak said. "We're not there yet, although we're getting close."

He said the agency hoped to have a final proposal ready for the White House within the "next several weeks."

But even hints that pollution-control rules will be relaxed sparked criticism.

"The Bush administration is in the process of enabling these plants to achieve a form of immortality through ongoing exemption from the Clean Air Act," said Dan McDermott, director of the Sierra Club of Eastern Canada, an environmental group. "It's very bad news."

The 1970 Clean Air Act exempted numerous power plants from improving their air emissions unless they attempted to modernize their facilities, in which case strict controls would be imposed.

The owners of these grandfathered plants argue that they cannot improve their performance to meet rising energy demand unless some of the clean-air requirements are loosened.

Environmentalists and politicians from Canada and northeastern states that receive emissions from the plants are pressuring the Bush administration to maintain and even toughen the rules.

While the Ontario government reacted strongly to word of the tentative tradeoff in the United States, federal officials were more circumspect.

The federal government was monitoring developments and would do extensive economic and environmental assessments once a new policy had been put in place, said Kelly Morgan, the press secretary for Environment Minister David Anderson.

Ms. Morgan said Environment Canada has been aware of the developments and assured that the new enforcement rules will not undermine a bilateral agreement to reduce ozone-producing gases.

"We've been advised that if there is a reduction in enforcement, the Ozone Annex commitments will not be affected," she said.

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