Fight for clean air


INDUSTRIAL POLLUTERS have been trying for years to evade restrictions on smokestack emissions required by the Clean Air Act.

Back in the 1970s, power plants, oil refineries and other facilities won a grandfather clause from Congress that allows them to put off installing anti-pollution technology until they undertake major renovations. Since then, some of them allegedly have flouted the law and modernized their plants without emission controls. Many others have simply allowed their plants to limp along, operating inefficiently and polluting the air, hoping somebody in Washington would finally cut them a break.

Now, President Bush, perhaps the best friend the energy industry has ever had in the White House, has come to their rescue. He has expanded that '70s loophole so wide that existing plants may be able to get away with never installing the anti-pollution technology.

This is no favor for those of us living downwind, and the regulatory means Mr. Bush used to deliver it clearly violate the intent of the law.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who says he is troubled by the new rules, should join with the leaders of other Eastern Seaboard states particularly affected by the soot and smog in asking federal courts to reverse them.

Granted, this may not be an easy decision for the Republican governor, to take on a Republican administration. Plus, Mr. Ehrlich prides himself on offering a sympathetic ear to the travails of businesses trying to compete when they are constricted by regulatory red tape.

But this is about allowing coal-burning power plants that were already old when the 1970 Clean Air Act was born to continue spewing junk into the atmosphere that causes asthma and cancer and other ailments in humans and contributes mightily to the air pollution that washes into the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Bush argues that he's actually taking a step toward cleaner air by encouraging these old plants to modernize and become more efficient - without having to spend millions more on pollution controls.

Greater efficiency, the Bush administration says, will result in reduced emissions.

The loophole is now so gaping, though, there's virtually no incentive for any existing plant to install the latest anti-pollution technology. What's more, it gives a pass to the 51 Midwest power plants the Justice Department contends had modernized earlier in violation of the pollution equipment requirements.

The administration has been preparing to relax these rules for at least a year, but contends the case for it has been strengthened by this month's massive power blackout in the Northeast, due in part to a rickety utility system.

But we can't afford to be so short-sighted anymore. Too much long-term damage to health and the environment has already been done in return for quickie financial returns or selfish indulgences.

Maryland was one of 14 states, including several with Republican governors, that took the administration to court earlier this year in a similar dispute. It should quickly join their ranks again.

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