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EPA Clean-Air Claims Disputed

Congressional investigators say the Environmental Protection Agency relied on anecdotes from industries it regulates, not comprehensive data, when it claimed that relaxing air pollution rules for industrial plants would cut emissions and reduce health risks.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a report Monday that EPA lacked scientific evidence for its claims that the Clean Air Act's "new source review" program needed revising because it discourages energy-efficiency improvements at plants.

EPA eased pollution-control requirements for utilities, oil companies and manufacturers in December but is reconsidering parts of those final rules now.

"Because it lacked comprehensive data, EPA relied on anecdotes from the four industries it believes are most affected," the GAO said. "Because the information is anecdotal, EPA's findings do not necessarily represent the program's effects across the industries subject to the program."

EPA planned to announce more changes to the program Wednesday to allow many of the nation's dirtiest coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities to claim more upgrades as "routine maintenance" that do not require more emissions-cutting devices.

Agency officials agreed with the report's recommendation that they should find appropriate data to track results of rule changes as federal and state authorities implement them. Agency spokeswoman Lisa Harrison said EPA intends "to establish and strengthen mechanisms" for judging the program's success.

"The bottom line is that EPA remains committed to improving the NSR program, and our improvements will make the Clean Air Act work better to protect public health," she said.

Jeffrey Marks, director of air quality policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said better data generally leads to better regulation, but his group believes EPA was correct to conclude its rule changes provided economic, environmental and energy efficiency benefits despite the lack of data.

Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., the No. 2 senator on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the report was another indication that the Bush administration's weakening of the Clean Air Act was unwarranted.

Environmentalists and some states legally challenged the rules, saying the effects on air quality and public health were unacceptable. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general, said the GAO report confirms the rule changes weren't supported by scientific evidence and showed the administration has sold out to special interests.

"This report should be the final nail in the coffin of environmental credibility for this administration," he said.

EPA said cost-benefit analysis wasn't required since less than $100 million in economic and environmental impacts were at stake. Jeffords and some Senate Democrats said more analysis was needed because EPA documents indicate that keeping the program intact would provide more than $2 billion in annual health benefits.

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