WASHINGTON, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- The Bush administration on Friday eased anti-pollution regulations requiring older coal-fired refineries to upgrade with modern clean air equipment in an effort to spur expanded construction of power plants.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said the action would offer power plants more flexibility to improve and modernize their operations in ways that will reduce energy use and air pollution and provide incentives to install state-of-the-art pollution controls.
But environmental pressure groups and Democrats attacked the changes as a "gift to polluters."
The new rules define the term "routine maintenance, repair and replacement" for power plants under the New Source Review Program.
That program holds that a source, such as a power station, should have modern pollution control equipment installed when it is built or when it is modernized or has its capacity increased. Critics claimed that the regulations discouraged the modernization -- and even proper maintenance -- of power plants by forcing owners to install costly anti-pollution equipment whenever they were upgraded.
"These improvements will also remove perverse and unintended regulatory barriers to investments in energy efficiency and pollution control projects, while preserving the environmental benefits of the NSR program," Whitman said in a statement Friday.
The Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy praised the EPA for tackling what they said was a tough issue.
"For more than a decade, the EPA and stakeholders have worked to address this difficult issue. Today's announcement is a positive step forward for increasing energy efficiency and improving air quality," said CREA President Italia Federici.
But the action drew quick criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill and environmental and health care groups that have long opposed Bush's efforts to loosen Clean Air rules.
Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called the administration's timing of the new rules politically motivated and vowed that the changes wouldn't go unchallenged in the next Congress.
"It's no accident that the EPA is announcing these changes after the election. The administration knows that, had voters been given a chance, they would have rejected these damaging changes," Daschle said.
He said the federal government should strengthen the Clean Air Act by seeking reasonable ways to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide.
Sen. John R. Edwards, D-N.C., called the EPA decision a "gift to polluters" that promised more smog, soot and more premature deaths. Edwards said the measures will delay, and perhaps defeat, efforts to make polluters follow the law and protect human health.
Mark Van Patten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said the Bush administration's decision to weaken the Clean Air Act would result in more air pollution from power plants and refineries and jeopardize public health.
"By widening the loophole that has allowed old coal-fired power plants to avoid modern pollution controls for 30 years, this reckless action makes it more difficult to protect people and wildlife from the other major impacts of these power plants, including the buildup of toxic mercury contamination in the nation's waterways and the mounting toll of global warming," Van Patten said.
John L. Kirkwood, president of the American Lung Association said the decision comes on the heels of one of the worst smog seasons in recent years. "EPA's plan further tightens the air pollution noose around dozens of communities," Kirkwood said.
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said the Bush administration has told polluters that they can "go ahead and dump more junk in the air."
"President Bush should instead enforce the law and tell power plants to reduce their pollution so our communities are healthier places to raise families," Pope said.
The oil and gas industry had pushed hard for changes to the Clean Air Act provisions in the months while the regulation was under review. During the 2002 election cycle, the industry contributed some $14.6 million to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks campaign contributions. The electric industry contributed at least $11 million to the GOP.