Reagan vs. environmentalists: first puff of smoke in clean air battle

Is it a reform or a rollback of US environmental protection rules? The Reagan White House is calling its first concrete action on the environment -- a proposed change in the Clean Air Act -- a "regulatory reform" aimed at helping industry.

But environmentalists report that the proposals amount to a "regulatory rollback" that will retard future clean-air gains.

Thus, the Reagan administration's environmental battle has been joined over a rather technical-sounding Clear Air Act rule.

The rule, officially proposed March 9, would allow polluters like steel or oil companies to treat new furnace or refinery "smokestacks" as part of their existing allowable "bubble" (the overall level of pollutants they can release). Previously, under the Carter administration's concept, only old or existing exhaust stacks were included under the bubble, which allowed companies to offset increased pollution from some stacks by reduction in others. New stacks have had to be fitted with the best air-cleaning equipment in use elsewhere.

Both environmentalists and administration spokesmen see the clean-air change as only the first in a broad set of environmental dominoes about to fall.

Eased coal strip-mining laws, the opening of public land for logging and other commercial uses, a backoff in support for endangered species legislation -- these are among the fundamental Reagan environmental reversals environmentalists see coming next.

Speaking for the Reaganites, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) legal counsel Bruce Diamond described for the Monitor the basic industry vs. environment arguments behind the proposed Clean Air Act rules interpretation:

"The environmentalists say you should have to put all facilities [each exhaust attack] through separate review. Industry's rebuttal is to say you're asking for disincentives to modernization and expansion."

Richard Ayres, clean-air-law point man for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says: "This isn't regulatory reform, it's regulatory rollback. It's not a regulatory proposal in that it makes for no less red tape or more efficiency. It doesn't make the clean air rules easier. It's a change in the substance of the law."

The EPA proposal was made by Vice- President George Bush, who heads Reagan's new Presidential Task force on Regulatory Relief. The White House has yet to name an EPA administrator, or to disclose all its proposals for revising the Clean Air Act, which must be renewed by Congress this year.

The environmentalists intend to argue against the new rule in public hearings , which the law requires be held. Lawsuits could follow, the the chief field of environmental battle will be Congress itself, Mr. Ayres says.

"What they've done is to change the definition so that when a new basic oxygen furnace, say, is installed in a steel plant, it's not considered a 'new source,'" comments Ayres. "All an industry has to do is offset the pollution it's added. That means no progress. It means a showing at least, if not a halt in major sources of improvement.

"This reflects the Reagan administration's general philosophy on the Clean Air Act, which is sympathetic to business complaints but not very sympathetic to the act's objective -- healthier air," Ayres says. "But the existing policy doesn't prevent business from expanding its facilities, even in dirty areas. The policy says expansion should be considered an opportunity for improvement."

Brock Evans, director of the Sierra Club's Washington office, sees the clean-air proposal as the first of a long-feared set of antienvironment Reagan steps.

"We feared this would happen," Mr. Evans told the Monitor. "That's why we campaigned for Carter and testified against [Interior Secretary James G.] Watt."

Evans links likely Interior Department and EPA actions together in a two-pronged Reagan offensive on pollution and public lands fronts. "They will attempt to gut pollution control laws -- I put strip mining under the pollution-control effort -- for the economic benefit of industry," Evans says. "And they are mounting a full-scale assault on public lands -- again for economic benefit of the same industrial clients that Watt and the other nominees represented and worked for before they came into office."

Regulations that control lands where energy resources like oil, gas, and coal can be leased will be an early target, Evans says. So will be regulations that require protecting wildlife habitats while leasing or prospecting.

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