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Senate refuses to delay EPA rule

Thursday, January 23, 2003

By Ann McFeatters, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- In a narrow victory for President Bush, the Senate voted 50-46 yesterday against a Democratic proposal to delay a highly controversial Environmental Protection Agency rule that will permit factories and power plants to upgrade facilities without having to install the newest state-of-the-art anti-pollution technology.

Although many environmentalists in Pennsylvania argue that pollution from the Midwest is hurting residents, the state's two Republican senators, Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, supported the president on the grounds that the new rule is a necessary move for the economy and would permit plants to modernize without having to add costly new anti-pollution controls. Republicans also argued that the new rule has the potential to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is running for president, tried without success to block implementation of the new rules until Sept. 15 to give National Academy of Sciences researchers time to study the impact on air pollution and health. Edwards said air pollution in his state had become so bad that simply breathing the air takes two to three years off normal life expectancy.

After rejecting Edwards' amendment, the Senate voted 51-45 for an amendment to implement the new EPA rule in March.

The National Association of Manufacturers said it was delighted with the vote on the so-called "New Source [of pollution] Review" rule, which the industry has been seeking for years. The administration announced in November -- after the mid-term elections -- that it was relaxing standards for when refineries, industrial plants and coal-fired utilities must install new pollution controls to reduce soot, acid rain and smog. The EPA said it was making the change in policy because the old interpretation of the Clean Air Act was keeping more-efficient, less-polluting plants from being built.

Explaining his vote, Specter said: "The regulations have been pending for a long time," and the amendment would require yet more time for the study. "It was my view that we ought to move ahead with these regulations, and this vote allows an earlier resolution of the issue."

Environmental groups -- including the Clean Air Council, Environmental Defense and the Sierra Club -- criticized the votes, noting that Pennsylvania will be one of the states most affected by a relaxation of the air-quality rules.

"Senators Specter and Santorum threw away a chance to stop the Bush administration's plan to weaken the Clean Air Act and make protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvania's families and communities a priority," said Phil Coleman, the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chairman.

Besides Specter and Santorum, other regional senators who supported the administration were Mike DeWine and George Voinovich, both R-Ohio, while Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., voted for Edwards' delay.

Several Northeastern Republicans abandoned the administration stand, reflecting their belief that the region bears the brunt of wind-borne pollution. Those who crossed party lines included two -- New Hampshire Sens. Judd Gregg and John Sununu-- who rarely do so. Other GOP backers of Edwards' amendment were Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and John McCain of Arizona.

To offset the defections, GOP leaders won over five Southern Democrats: Sens. John B. Breaux and Mary L. Landrieu, both of Louisiana; Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, both of Arkansas; and Zell Miller of Georgia. Through a spokeswoman, Breaux said he believed that the Bush administration rules were "well-conceived," culminating studies begun in the Clinton administration.

Industrial and environmental lobbyists alike agreed that business interests in Louisiana and Arkansas, such as oil refineries and paper mills, influenced the votes of those states' four senators. Miller is a frequent Bush administration ally.

Environmental groups, although braced for a defeat because the Senate is now GOP-controlled, said they were disheartened. National Parks Conservation Association President Thomas Kiernan said: "This administration is weakening the Clean Air Act, which, in turn, worsens air quality in our beleaguered national parks. In this way, the administration is dismantling our strongest protections against the environmental and health risks of air pollution."

EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said his agency would move ahead with changes to the "new source review" program. "We continue to believe these actions will improve the program and encourage emissions reductions," he said.

Under the Clean Air Act, most major new industrial plants are required to have up-to-date pollution controls.

Plants built before 1977 are required, in general, to add such controls when they are upgraded in ways that make them significant "new sources" of additional pollutants, but industry and environmentalists have long disputed what level of construction should trigger those requirements. The Bush administration's new rules gave companies some, but not all, of the changes they had sought.

Edwards vowed to keep raising the issue "because I think we can stop them from weakening the Clean Air Act and putting people's lives at risk."

But there is another avenue for foes. Nine Northeastern states -- Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Maryland -- have filed a lawsuit to block the rule, arguing that it will adversely affect their citizens because it won't reduce air pollution as much as the Clean Air Act intended.

The Edwards amendment vote came as part of the Senate's consideration of a $390 billion spending bill to fund a broad range of nonmilitary programs through Sept. 30.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Ann McFeatters can be reached at amcfeatters @nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7071.

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