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Dissent At The EPA

The chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's civil enforcement office has resigned, complaining the White House is undermining anti-pollution efforts at power plants that violate clean air laws.

Eric Schaeffer, a lawyer at the EPA for a dozen years dating from the first Bush administration, said in a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman that the White House "seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce."

An EPA spokesman disagreed with many of the assertions made by Schaeffer, a career civil servant, and said the Bush administration "remains committed to enforcement ... in a major way" against polluters.

The EPA spokesman, Joe Mardiak, said Thursday that Whitman had seen Schaeffer's letter but would have no direct comment.

Schaeffer said in the letter, submitted late Wednesday, that he had been frustrated especially by the administration's review of the EPA's push to require power plants to augment pollution controls when they make significant improvements or expansions that result in more pollution.

Reached at his home Thursday, Schaeffer said the problems he outlined in his resignation letter "reflect the views of just about all the civil servants working in enforcement" at the EPA.

"This is the kind of thing you can't say when you're in government, and it is something I really feel needs to be said," he added.

In his letter, Schaeffer lamented the impact that the White House review of the so-called "new source review" rule has had on lawsuits filed against a dozen utilities. The suits alleged the plants violated the Clean Air Act by not putting in additional pollution controls when making plant changes.

Settlements with two of the companies resulted in major reductions of pollution. Two other utilities tentatively agreed to settle but refused to sign agreements because of the White House review, Schaeffer said.

Noting in the letter that the power plants targeted by the EPA release 5 million tons of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide and 2 million tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxide, he said: "Fifteen months ago it looked as though our lawsuits were going to shrink these dismal statistics, ... yet today, we seem about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

"We are ... fighting a White House that seems determined to weaken the rules we are trying to enforce," he continued.

He said the changes being considered by the administration "would turn narrow exemptions (allowed to power plant operators) into larger loopholes that would allow (older) plants to be continually rebuilt and emissions to increase without modern pollution controls."

Mardiak, the EPA spokesman, said the rule changes criticized by Schaeffer are still under review. "We are still pursuing those settlement discussions" as part of the lawsuits, Mardiak said.

The "clean skies" proposal announced by President Bush recently "will dramatically cut air pollution from power plants at a rate that is faster, greater and more reliable than under the current Clean Air Act."

Environmentalists said Schaeffer's now public pronouncements reflect what they have been saying all along.

"What's it going to take for this administration to crack down on polluters? If this doesn't shake them up, what will?" asked John Coequyt, an official of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group.

By H. Josef Hebert