One Giant Step Back for Mankind

A Giant Step Back
The NYT Magazine's cover story this week details how the Bush Administration, through subtle regulatory changes, scuttled what would have been "one of the greatest advances in clean air in the nation's history." In 1977, Congress passed an amendment to the Clean Air Act requiring older power plants to use the best available pollution-control technology when they upgraded their plants. The industry has flouted the requirement for years but in the late 1990s "E.P.A. investigators had caught them breaking the law" and filed suit against a number of large power companies. The violations have profound implications on public health - "researchers estimate that fine-particulate pollution from power plants shortens the lives of more than 30,000 Americans every year." As the Bush Administration took office, "the power companies were on the verge of signing agreements to clean up their plants." But the White House immediately went to work drafting new rules and the power companies "lost their incentives to cut deals." Eventually, the Administration settled on rules allowing companies to spend up to 20% of a plant's replacement cost without triggering the requirement to install pollution control equipment. The regulations set the threshold "so high that pollution-control requirements would almost never come into effect." After the new threshold was set, "investigation into 70 companies suspected of violations of the clean air act were abandoned" and the agency decided to "newly 'evaluate' and perhaps choose not to pursue, existing...investigations."

Executives of companies that ran afoul of the Clean Air Act before the Bush Administration's revisions were major contributors to the President. FirstEnergy President Anthony Alexander, Reliant Resources CEO Steve Letbetter and Reliant's Chairman Don Jordan, whose companies were sued by the EPA, were Pioneers on Bush's 2000 campaign -- meaning they raised at least $100,000. Six other Pioneers were lawyers or lobbyists for companies sued by the EPA for failing to install pollution-control technology in their power plants. Author Lisa Heinzerling writes the Administration is creating an environment of deception when it comes to the environment.

In February 2004, conservative leaders in Congress sent an email to all House Republicans advising them on what to say about the environment in the months ahead. The email directs members to say "global warming has not been proved, air quality is 'getting better,' the world's forests are 'spreading, not deadening,' oil reserves are 'increasing, not decreasing' and the 'world's water is cleaner and reaching more people.'" The claims are "supported" by circumspect research bankrolled by industry. The email's Pollyannaish attitude towards the nation's environmental problems has drawn bi-partisan criticism. Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) criticized the email for ignoring "the fact that pollution continues to be a health threat," and said "if I tried to follow these talking points at a town hall meeting with my constituents, I'd be booed." Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) said the memo was "'outlandish' and an attempt to deceive voters."

The Bush Administration's backtracking on regulations to reduce dangerous mercury emissions from power plants is meeting widespread disapproval. 45 U.S. Senators -- including seven Republicans -- wrote a letter expressing their concern to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. The group, which included such stalwart conservatives as Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), wrote that Leavitt's mercury proposals "fall far short of what the law requires, and they fail to protect the health of our children and the environment." The Senators were joined on the letter by attorneys general from 10 states.

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