Bush’s EPA set to relax rules on industrial pollution. Environment Richard Blumenthal, attorney general of Connecticut, is on the phone, and for a measured man, he sounds apoplectic. He and seven other attorneys general from the Northeast are threatening to sue the Bush administration if it goes forward with a new package of Clean Air Act loopholes and exemptions that will allow more than 30,000 industrial factories, oil refineries and power plants to increase their pollution levels. “We’re fighting an uphill battle,” says Blumenthal, “because we’ve been shut out. Enron, American Electric Power, Edison Electric and other companies have been speaking to senior administration officials, and in some ways they’ve been ghostwriting the standards that will apply to them.”
Of the more than 30,000 industrial facilities at issue, about 500 old, coal-fired power plants located mostly in the Midwest and Southeast generate millions of tons of poisonous dust per year. The tiny particles, which include mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, cause high power-plant-related death rates in the Midwest and Southeast; the particles do further harm when prevailing winds carry them to the densely settled Northeast.
Built decades ago, these plants were exempted from pollution rules, under the assumption that they would soon be phased out. Instead, utility companies have updated the plants, and today they supply almost half the nation’s electricity — even though repeated studies show that hospital admissions and daily death rates spike during months with high emissions. Fine particles are associated with thousands of heart attacks every year: They enter blood vessels through the lungs, provoking the body to produce chemicals that cause arterial plaque and blood clotting, which can result in heart attacks.
The eight attorneys general from the Northeast, in conjunction with Bush’s own Justice Department, are suing the energy companies to force them to institute the pollution controls that modern power plants already have in place. They believe that the anticipated new rules, which would permit much higher emissions, would undermine their lawsuits.
Since the EPA itself estimated in 1997 that enforcing new air-pollution requirements would prevent 15,000 deaths per year, public-health experts are baffled. “If you spread out the cost of upgrading the power plants over the total kilowatt-hours they generate,” says Dr. Joel Schwartz, an environmental-health professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, “it’s just not that expensive. Holding the price of electricity down a bit in the Midwest at the cost of killing people seems like bad policy.” Power plants marked on the map above have been cited for excess emissions of toxic particles. More than 30,000 industrial facilities will be able to increase emissions.