Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

EPA Walking Backwards


Photo of the Newburgh Beacon Bridge Poughkeepsie Journal, Editorial
Monday, October 11, 2004

EPA is failing to keep air clean

The Environmental Protection Agency Has some nerve. It's been crowing lately the atmosphere is cleaner in the Adirondack Mountains -- but at the same time it's undermining some of the regulations that helped lower pollution in the first place. That leaves New York little choice but to keep up its court fight against these ill-advised changes in federal policy.

EPA officials do have some cause to celebrate. They rightly point out that between 1990 and 2003 the amount of sulfur dioxide emissions reaching the Adirondacks dropped by one third.

It's widely agreed the Clean Air Act of 1990 has been a major force behind this success. Under the ''cap and trade'' plan, government has set limits on pollution and then put economic pressure on dirty power plants nationwide that refuse to meet them. These businesses are required to buy ''pollution credits'' from cleaner facilities.

This approach has been effective, says John Sheehan of the Adirondack Council, an environmental group. While sulfur dioxide from power plant emissions is still killing mountain lakes and streams, and nitrogen oxide is still poisoning fragile topsoils, he said the rate has slowed significantly.

Moreover, billions of dollars in health-care costs have been saved thanks to emission reductions won through the Clean Air Act, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Power plant emissions have been linked to lung cancer, asthma and other diseases.

But, unfortunately, the EPA has rolled back a critical Clean Air Act regulation: New Source Review. As a result, power companies no longer must improve their pollution controls when they make substantial upgrades to their aging facilities. They almost never even have to file New Source Review paperwork anymore -- which means the public might not find out when a polluting plant expands its output. This lack of paperwork also makes it harder for enterprising public officials like Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to keep suing these dirty facilities for harming New York's environment.

Program losing its effectiveness

Without New Source Review, power plant pollution is on the rise again. You won't hear EPA officials brag about this, but their most recent national figures show sulfur dioxide is back up 4 percent.

Energy companies have gotten much bigger since the Clean Air Act was created, says Neil Woodworth, an environmental lawyer with the Adirondack Mountain Club. He contends executives have begun to improve their profits by shifting pollution credits around among the plants they own in different regions of the country. Typically, these credits are going to filthy
generating plants in the Midwest, where there's plenty of inexpensive high-sulfur coal available as fuel.

The EPA is adopting new regulations that would make pollution credits more scarce, and force energy companies to buy more of them if they want to keep polluting. But they're weakening any gains here by allowing power plants to release higher levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

New York is doing what it can. It has issued firm emergency emission requirements for the state's own power plants. And Spitzer, environmental groups and his colleagues in other states are continuing their lawsuits against the worst polluters in the Midwest, as well as the EPA for gutting federal pollution controls. They haven't made much headway yet, but they must not give up.

With the federal government abdicating its environmental responsibilities, it's up to the states and the courts to take charge.

Contact Congresswoman Sue Kelly:
21 Old Main Street
Room 107
Fishkill, NY 12524
Phone: (845) 897-5200
Fax: (845) 897-5800

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