IMAGE: COAL-FIRED POWER PLANT
Jim Cole  /  AP file
This coal-fired power plant in Bow, N.H., is one of hundreds across the United States. A court ruling Friday impacts the plants as well as thousands of factories with a smokestack.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/17/2006 3:56:52 PM ET 2006-03-17T20:56:52

A federal appeals court sided with 14 states Friday and blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from going forward with regulations that activists say would lead to more air pollution from the nation’s power plants and factories.

“Today's victory means that thousands of Americans will not have their lives cut short because of the pollution that would have blown through this huge loophole,” Janice Nolen, the American Lung Association’s policy director, said in a statement.

The new rules would have allowed older power plants, refineries and factories to modernize without having to install the most advanced pollution controls. The EPA has disputed claims that the changes would increase pollution.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that the EPA’s changes violated the language of the federal Clean Air Act, and that any such change can be authorized only by Congress. Fourteen states and a number of cities, including New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., sued to block the change in 2003.

Spitzer: ‘Enormous victory’
“This is an enormous victory for clean air and for the enforcement of the law and an overwhelming rejection of the Bush administration’s efforts to gut the law,” said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who led the suit for the states. “It is a rejection of a flawed policy.”

“It has been estimated that more than 20,000 Americans die prematurely each year from power plant pollution,” he added. “As a result of this decision, that number should be reduced.”

Peter Lehner, Spitzer’s top environmental lawyer, said the decision applies to about 800 coal-fired power plants and up to 17,000 factories nationwide.

Bill Becker, the head of an association representing state and local air officials, praised the ruling as well. “It is a tremendous victory for clean air and preserves an important regulatory tool for state and local air quality officials,” Becker said in a statement.

Under the Clean Air Act, operators who do anything more than routine maintenance are required to add more pollution-cutting devices. Under the proposed change, industrial facilities could have avoided paying for expensive emissions-cutting devices if they spent less than 20 percent of the plant’s value, Lehner said.

The rule had been blocked from going into effect since December 2003, when the same court issued a stay.

“We are disappointed that the court did not find in favor of the United States,” said EPA spokesman John Millett. “We are reviewing and analyzing the opinion and cannot comment further at this time.”

‘Step backward,’ says industry
Industry groups have contended that the Clean Air Act, as now written, discourages plant operators from modernizing their equipment. They said Friday’s decision would do little to help air quality while costing billions of dollars that consumers end up paying.

“The decision is a step backward in the protection of air quality in the United States,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a Washington-based group representing several power-generating companies. “What is it the environmental community thinks they’ve won? They’ve won the ability to place roadblocks in front of energy efficiency projects. This is terrible news.”

But the court disagreed, saying the EPA rule was “contrary to the plain language” of the Clean Air Act that says the provisions would kick in if a power plant is modified to cause “any physical change” that increases the amount of air pollutants.

The lawsuit was filed by New York, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.

The American Lung Association and many environmental groups were also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Former EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said in her book that she was against the rule — the idea for which came from Vice President Dick Cheney’s energy task force — when she was in office.

“I must say that I’m glad they weren’t able to finish the work until after I was home in New Jersey,” she wrote in “It’s My Party, Too,” after she left the Bush administration in 2003.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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