Naked City

Clean Air Advocates: 'Clear Skies' Bill Clouds the Truth

Austin environmental advocates Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition and Public Citizen-Texas joined other green groups last Thursday in a nationwide conference call assailing the 2005 version of the Bush administration's Clear Skies bill. Described as a sweetheart deal for polluters that weakens and eliminates numerous sections of the Clean Air Act, the bill is said to include new loopholes that allow increased emissions of mercury, arsenic, lead, and other toxic chemicals from a range of industrial facilities. "The bill guts the very public health protections that have saved lives and protected our environment for the past 35 years," said SEED Coalition director Karen Hadden. Public Citizen's Tom "Smitty" Smith said, "This is a reckless attempt to undo the most important protections in our nation's most important clean air law."

While the new bill (S.131) has been promoted as a power-plant cleanup measure, new analysis conducted by the Clean Air Task Force and Environmental Defense claims that one provision in the bill would allow as many as 69,000 oil refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial units to opt out of EPA regulations that require them to reduce emissions. The bill also includes a new loophole that would exempt 52% of all power plants from the current mercury emissions cap, another aspect of the bill that has observers questioning Team Bush's intentions.

"If the administration wants to reduce smog and soot pollution to the levels in S.131, the Clear Skies bill, it could do so tomorrow with the stroke of the pen," said Angela Ledford, director of Washington-based Clear the Air. "They could and should simply strengthen and finalize the Clean Air Interstate rule [the] EPA proposed last year." She said S.131 is a classic "bait and switch," offering modest emissions reductions over a period of decades as a smoke screen for dismantling the long-standing Clean Air Act.

Claims that the new bill is "industry-influenced" were repeated during the conference, thanks in part to a recent report by EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley. The controversial report, which appeared in The Washington Post, alleged that EPA staffers were instructed to ignore scientific evidence and agency protocols in order to set modest limits on mercury pollution that would line up with the Clear Skies Initiative's free-market approach to power plant pollution.

"Senators [Kay Bailey] Hutchison and [John] Cornyn should stand with medical and public health advocates who vigorously oppose the gutting of air quality protections instead of big corporate polluters who support it," concluded Hadden.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is voting on the bill at press time. Additional information from critics can be found at www.sweetheartdeal.org and www.seedcoalition.org.

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