EPA puts off decision on modernization rules for power plants; environmentalists fear changes coming

Wednesday, August 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration has put off announcing whether it will stop tightening pollution requirements for power plants that are being repaired or upgraded. Environmentalists worry that the delay is a signal that industry will win changes in the rules.

The Environmental Protection Agency postponed the decision until September, when it will propose legislation for reducing emissions of three major air pollutants.

``Our top priority is protecting public health and the environment, and we are in the final stages of developing a comprehensive strategy that will allow us to take the next step forward into a new generation of air pollution controls,'' EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said Tuesday.

At issue is the EPA's ``new source review'' program, which is supposed to minimize air pollution from new factories, power plants and refineries.

Power industry officials say EPA has applied the regulations to routine maintenance and replacement work, making plant maintenance schedules longer and more costly. Environmentalists want the program left intact.

The postponement ``sends a clear signal that EPA is headed in the wrong direction,'' said Rebecca Stanfield, an attorney for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. ``They're looking to obscure the impact of what they're doing by putting into the context of a bigger legislative proposal.''

In a statement, the EPA noted that the National Governors' Association last week called for reform of the program ``to achieve improvements that enhance the environment and increase energy production capacity.''

The EPA's evaluation of the program was ordered by a task force, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, that predicted the need for 1,300 new power plants. The agency held four hearings around the country and received 130,000 written comments on the issue, and was to report to President Bush by Friday.

The Justice Department is separately reviewing enforcement actions that have been brought under the program to see if they were legal under the Clean Air Act.

The legislation that the EPA is expected to propose next month will set caps on emissions of nitrogen, sulfur and mercury while allowing the industry to find the most cost-effective means of compliance, the agency said.

The administration has refused to include carbon dioxide among those pollutants, despite its link to global warming.

``We are developing a comprehensive approach to improving our efforts to control air pollution, to achieve significant reductions in air pollution while simultaneously streamlining the regulatory process so it works better, achieving real reductions and full industry compliance at far less cost,'' Whitman said.