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Clinton May Accept New, Firm EPA Standards for Clean Air

By Dan Balz and Joby Warrick
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

After a fierce internal struggle that strained relations between the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency, President Clinton is leaning toward a decision to endorse new clean air regulations, sources said Tuesday.

Clinton's decision will resolve a battle over standards that have provoked vigorous opposition from industry, divided traditional Democratic constituencies, split elected officials along regional lines and put Vice President Gore, the administration's leading environmentalist, clearly on the spot.

Clinton could make a final decision as early as Wednesday, but officials said he may want to consider the options a bit longer. He speaks Thursday to a United Nations conference on the environment that deals with global issues, but aides said that may not be the appropriate forum. European leaders have criticized the United States at the meeting for resisting specific timetables to reduce air pollution blamed for global warming.

Officials said that if Clinton endorses the bulk of EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner's proposed regulations, he may seek to soften their impact on big cities and on industry through an implementation process that attempts to accommodate their concerns and other programs to offset the economic effects.

EPA's proposals for reducing smog and soot would constitute the most significant tightening of federal air quality standards in at least a decade. Unveiled in November, the regulations would toughen restrictions on smog-producing ozone and fine airborne particles known as particulate matter. Both come from a variety of man-made as well as natural sources, although the biggest culprits are heavy industry, utilities and automobiles.

Although the air is gradually becoming cleaner in most parts of the country, scientific studies suggest that government standards fail to protect millions of Americans who suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases. The EPA projects that its new standards would prevent 15,000 premature deaths each year while saving billions of dollars in medical expenses.

Opponents of the measures argue that scientific evidence is not conclusive, and they say EPA's remedy could hobble economic development in polluted cities and force lifestyle changes on millions of people. Major corporations and industry trade groups have spent millions of dollars to generate opposition to the standards in Washington and around the country.

Administration officials largely failed to reach consensus during the long and often difficult interagency process. In the end, they are asking Clinton to choose between competing positions. Sources said Clinton was inclined to support the regulations all along, but several officials, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said that Browner's high-profile, public defense of stricter air standards has made it far more difficult to dilute them, even if he wanted to do so.

With Clinton on the brink of a decision, the U.S. Conference of Mayors approved a resolution Tuesday opposing the EPA's proposed rules, arguing that the economic consequences of adopting stricter air standards will impose great hardships on their cities. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, a close ally of Clinton and Gore who has led the opposition among the mayors, told the conference that the EPA's proposed rules go "too far too fast."

Browner declined to comment on the internal politics of the debate other than to say the talks have been "extensive and constructive." All sides of the debate were given a fair hearing, she said, and there were no attempts to force the EPA to retreat on the standards.