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Filtering The Smog

by Frank O'Donnell Friday, Oct. 24, 2003 at 2:42 PM

Clinton's EPA filed suits and brought against dozens of industrial plants, including ExxonMobil and Southern Company. But Bush's EPA re-writes the rules and permits companies to keep secret information about their deadly emissions.

Filtering The Smog

Frank O'Donnell,, Oct 23 2003

This just in from the U.S. General Accounting Office: The Bush administration has undermined enforcement of the Clean Air Act. The public will be breathing dirtier air--and many of us dying sooner--as a result.

Frankly, this isn't news to those of us who monitor the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency for a living. We have known for some time that under President Bush, the EPA has become something of a wholly owned subsidiary of such huge polluters--and generous GOP campaign contributors--as ExxonMobil and Southern Company. (And what a deal for them, when you think of it: EPA politicos, working on their behalf, with salaries paid for by taxpayers!)

Even so, it may be useful for the GAO, often called the "congressional watchdog agency," to set out its findings for the public. The real question now is whether those EPA politicos will, like Serbia's Milosevic, be held accountable for their life-shortening atrocities.

Here is a brief recap of the issue and what GAO reported: The Clean Air Act requires older smokestack industries such as electric power plants and refineries to use modern pollution controls when they make major plant changes that would increase pollution. In government jargon, this is called "New Source Review."

For years, big companies routinely ignored this requirement, while federal and state authorities were snoozing on the job. President Clinton's EPA moved to enforce the law, filing lawsuits and bringing enforcement actions against dozens of industrial plants, including those owned by ExxonMobil and Southern Company.

Following installation of the Bush administration, those companies went crying to Vice President Cheney, who promptly ordered EPA to reconsider the Clinton enforcement effort and how the law is interpreted. During the past two and a half years, the Bush-Cheney EPA has basically gutted this critical enforcement program--secretly urging power companies not to settle the Clinton lawsuits out of court, publicly pronouncing that the EPA intended to change the rules, and then following through and actually gutting the rules so big companies no longer need worry about them.

The GAO was asked by Sens. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) to investigate this matter, and here's what they reported on Oct. 22: the settlement of some cases was delayed because of the "prospect" that the rules "could be revised in a way that would improve industry's legal position." In addition, rule changes announced in August--which reversed the rules that prompted the Clinton lawsuits--"also likely will discourage utilities from settling at least some of the remaining cases. The rule may also affect judges' decisions regarding whether the companies have to install pollution controls, jeopardizing the expected emissions reductions."

For good measure, the watchdog agency noted that the Bush EPA re-wrote the rules in such a way as to permit companies to keep information about their deadly emissions a secret. In other words, we are expected to trust these companies voluntarily to keep their pollution below a certain level. Right.

Sens. Jeffords, Lieberman and Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) spotted something else of note: GAO noted that EPA's enforcement office was warning that the agency's activities could undercut the court cases even as Bush politico Jeffrey Holmstead, head of EPA's air pollution division, was telling Congress that EPA's actions would have no effect on the cases.

The senators have asked EPA's Inspector General to investigate Holmstead's actions. Noted Leahy: "The list of smoking guns is getting even longer with this new GAO finding that Mr. Holmstead intentionally misled Senate committees last year and has continued to work to get industry polluters off the hook and out of court. This all fits all too well into the deliberate pattern this administration has shown in misleading Congress and the American people about their wholesale assault on the environment."

It would be nice if the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Orin Hatch (R-Utah) had its own investigation--including putting Holmstead under oath and subjecting him to cross-examination.


Frank O'Donnell is the executive director of the Clean Air Trust (, a national non-profit watchdog group founded by former Senators Edmund Muskie of Maine and Robert Stafford of Vermont.

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