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EPA Easing Pollution Rules

In a move angering environmentalists and pleasing industry, the Bush administration is poised to issue new Clean Air regulations that would allow many old factories to escape pollution controls, a newspaper reports.

The Environmental Protection Agency is prepared to announce as early as next week the final version of a new rule it first proposed last December.

Under the new rule, an old factory will be able to make additions equal to the cost of replacing 20 percent of its equipment without having to add pollution controls, The New York Times reports, quoting leaked administration documents.

At issue is a process called New Source Review.

The Clean Air act required pollution controls whenever a factory was built or upgraded. But existing factories could escape the law under certain circumstances.

If the upgrade were deemed "routine maintenance," the factory would be exempt. But if the upgrade constituted something more than routine upkeep, it was subject to the Clean Air rules — meaning companies had to install costly pollution controls.

Industry said the requirement was vague and discouraged plants from switching to newer, safer, more efficient equipment — machines that might actually emit less pollution.

According to The Times, the Bush administration has considered changing it since President Bush took office.

In December, the EPA proposed that routine maintenance could cover anything up to 50 percent of the cost of replacing a factory's equipment, but Congress said that was too vague. The initial proposal triggered internal debate within the agency and elicited more than 200,000 comments from the public.

So the administration revisited the issue. The discussions have been kept secret, and in some documents the 20 percent figure is referred to simply as "X percent." A formal announcement could come next week.

Environmental groups say the new rule will not only prevent reductions in emissions, but will allow plants to increase their pollution, something the Clean Air Act was intended to prevent.

"The Bush administration, using an arbitrary, Enron-like accounting gimmick, is authorizing massive pollution increases to benefit Bush campaign contributors at the expense of public health," said John Walke of the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that provided leaked documents to The Times. "Corporate polluters will now be able to spew even more harmful chemicals into our air, regardless of the fact that it will harm millions of Americans."

According to The Times, the EPA announcement could put Mr. Bush's nominee to be the new head of the agency in an awkward position. Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah's own state air quality director opposes the changes.

Once announced, the only way the new rules can be challenged is through the courts. That seems likely.

On Tuesday, 13 states filed in the U.S. Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia Circuit a motion to block new rules for coal-burning power plants.

The announcement will come even as the Justice Department enjoys success in cases against alleged polluters.

Less than two weeks ago environmentalists claimed a significant victory when a judge in Ohio ruled that a major energy company in that state had repeatedly violated the federal Clean Air Act by frequently expanding its power plants and failing to install modern pollution control devices.

That failure, the judge found, led to a significant increase in harmful emissions.

According to the NRDC, there are similar cases involving nine Tennessee plants.

The cases went forward despite an order by Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force for the Justice Department to review whether it was appropriate to prosecute them.

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