Clear the Air on Power Plants

The Bush administration proposed last week to clarify rules that have stymied industry efforts to make older power plants and oil refineries more efficient, and maybe even less polluting.

Environmentalists retort that the administration is in fact opening a huge loophole in the country's clean air laws.

Average Americans, who have to breathe the air that results from this decision, may reasonably wonder who's closer to the truth.

At the heart of this debate is a regulatory process known as "new source review." It requires that power plants originally "grandfathered" out of tougher federal antipollution standards meet those standards if they are significantly rebuilt or expanded.

The hope, when the clean-air thrust began decades ago, was that these older, dirtier, coal-dependent plants would be phased out over time. Many, however, are still pumping out electricity, and pollution. At issue is whether such plants, when they make upgrades to keep operating, are merely engaging in routine maintenance (the industry contention), or making improvements that should trigger the "new source" rule and the addition of expensive antipollution gear.

The Clinton EPA thought the latter, and started tough enforcement, sparking a burst of lawsuits against utilities. The Bush team wants to temper the litigation by clarifying the standards and thus free up industry to improve plants without fear of lawsuits.

The question, now, is: How far will the EPA bend? While it has announced it wants to revamp the "new source" procedure, it hasn't given details. Most notably, what will be the new definition of "routine maintenance" that allows plants to escape the higher antipollution standards?

Answering such questions will take time, perhaps years. The EPA would be wise to stand firm for definitions that don't give carte blanche to utility operators to further avoid bringing old plants into compliance.

Their old belchers should be curbed soon, even if utility shareholders and customers take the brunt.

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