The Bush administration has effectively gutted the "new source review" provisions of the Clean Air Act. These provisions were meant to ensure that older, dirtier industrial facilities use the latest technologies to minimize pollution when major modifications to the plants result in increased emissions.
The thinking behind these provisions was that newer, cleaner technologies will gradually replace older, dirtier ones, and that the nation will progress toward cleaner air.
However, the Bush administration has seriously weakened these provisions to the point that William Becker, executive director of the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials (hardly a bastion of radical environmentalism) says that these new rules "will result in unchecked emission increases that will degrade our air quality and endanger public health."
It is estimated that these new rules will affect about 17,000 power plants, oil refineries, paper plants, incinerators, chemical plants and other such major sources of pollution.
These provisions will have a disproportionately greater impact on Kentucky because about 90 percent of our power generation comes from coal-fired power plants, which are the most polluting power sources.
According to the Kentucky Natural Resources Cabinet, Kentucky industrial facilities released 106 million pounds of toxic substances in 1999. This statistic does not include the hundreds of thousands of tons of other pollutants, such as nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide, that create smog and acid rain, and many chemicals that are not even measured.
We are already paying a price for this pollution. According to data generated by Abt Associates, the company that the Environmental Protection Agency uses for its studies, Kentucky leads the nation in per capita deaths due to power plant pollution. There is a statewide advisory for pregnant women, nursing women and children against consuming fish caught in Kentucky because of excessive levels of mercury, of which power plants are the major source. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that mercury contamination might be affecting the health of adult men, too -- although this connection is not clearly established.
Data generated by the EPA indicates that Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, ranks first out of 736 Southeastern U.S. counties in terms of health risks caused by hazardous air pollutants.
Kentucky needs less pollution, not more, and the Bush administration's policies are hurting, not helping.
Industry officials, whose lobbying led to the weakening of these rules, will try to argue that this action will not lead to more pollution. In fact, the modifications announced by the Bush administration will effectively nullify the new source review program and increase pollution.
According to documents obtained by The New York Times, EPA officials argued that the new rules will "vitiate" the nation's clean-air policy.
These officials have repeatedly questioned the legality of the rules, arguing that "they lack a solid legal rationale" and are "hard to justify from a legal perspective."
Political appointees and higher-ups in the Bush administration have overruled these officials, and EPA has been forced to endorse this policy. It is no wonder that several EPA officials have resigned in protest.
Nobody disputes the fact that air pollution affects human health. It is also universally understood that children and the elderly are disproportionately victimized by air pollution. Yet the Bush administration rewards polluters at the expense of their victims and the environment. It is unfortunate that our elected representatives, including U.S. Rep. Ernie Fletcher and Sen. Mitch McConnell, routinely side with polluters and do not work to protect the health of Kentuckians.
Luckily for those of us who like to breathe clean air, officials in nine other states have promised to join environmental groups in attempts to have these new rules overturned in court.