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New Bush Administration Rule Reduces Clean Air Regulations

By Katharine Q. Seelye

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

After more than two years of internal deliberation and intense pressure from industry, the Bush administration has settled on a regulation that would allow thousands of older power plants, oil refineries, and industrial units to make extensive upgrades without having to install new anti-pollution devices, according to those familiar with the deliberations.

The new rule, a draft of which was made available to The New York Times by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, would constitute a sweeping and cost-saving victory for industries, exempting more than 17,000 industrial plants and refineries from a portion of the Clean Air Act. The acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency could sign the new rule as soon as next week, administration officials have told utility representatives.

The exemption would allow industrial plants to continue to emit hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere and could save the companies millions if not billions of dollars in pollution equipment costs, even if they increase the amounts of pollutants they emit.

And the action could spare Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, if he is confirmed as President Bush’s new EPA administrator, from having to make a decision on a highly contentious issue.

The current rule requires plant owners to install pollution-control devices if they undertake anything more than “routine maintenance” on their plants. Industries have long complained that this standard was too vague and that it hindered substantial investment in cleaner, more efficient equipment.

The new rule says that as much as 20 percent of the cost of replacing a plant’s essential production equipment -- a boiler, generator, or turbine -- could be spent and the owner would still be exempt from installing any pollution controls, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

Together, such equipment can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes more than $1 billion, to replace. A utility or factory, therefore, could make tens of millions of dollars worth of improvements without being required to install pollution controls.

At the end of last year, the administration proposed a relaxation of the current standards, saying the threshold for requiring pollution control devices could be anywhere from 0 to 50 percent of the cost of replacing major equipment. Members of Congress protested that the public could not meaningfully comment on such a range, and 225,000 people objected to the rule before the comment period ended May 31, according to John Walke, an air expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Only in the last few weeks have officials settled on the 20 percent figure, which has been a closely held secret within the administration.