updated 1/9/2004 3:40:56 PM ET 2004-01-09T20:40:56

The Bush administration’s top environmental official promised Friday to prosecute vigorously Clinton-era lawsuits against polluters even as his agency seeks to weaken the clean-air standards that produced the litigation.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt said the administration would go forward with eight lawsuits filed against coal-fired plants that are among the nation’s main sources of air pollution. He also indicated the administration may file new cases.

“We’ll be enforcing the law, and there’ll be new enforcement actions,” Leavitt said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from Phoenix, where he was to address the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for utilities.

Leavitt said decisions on new cases will be “guided by a myriad of different factors, available resources and our desired environmental outcome, which has always been to clean up dirty power plants.”

Bill Becker, who heads a group for state and local air pollution control officials, said the administration is trying to have it both ways.

“It is very difficult to pursue the enforcement of existing lawsuits with rules that EPA no longer supports,” he said. “While the agency says they’re going to pursue these lawsuits, their heart has led them into a totally different direction, and one that provides huge loopholes in the enforcement of that program.”

EPA officials have said in the past several months they probably would drop some enforcement actions against utilities that were under investigation for violating the Clean Air Act and allegedly spewing thousands of tons of illegal pollution into the air.

The lawsuits stem from a Clinton administration interpretation of the Clean Air Act that created a “new source review” to require companies to install additional pollution controls when expanding or modernizing older power plants. President Bush’s EPA has issued regulations modifying those rules to allow utilities to make improvements without adding pollution controls.

Last month, a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the Bush administration changes, saying that a lawsuit by states challenging the changes had a “likelihood of success.”

Leavitt reiterated Friday that the administration would fight the appeals court decision, but in his speech to the electric utilities group, he also encouraged plants to clean up.

“Dirty power plants need to be cleaned up now, not a decade from now,” he said.

The interstate air pollution requirements the administration proposed last month would cut smog and soot-forming chemicals from power plants with the aim of reducing pollution that often travels long distances across many states.

In part, they are designed to replace the “new source review” program.

“If we clean up the offending power plants, the new source review issues go away,” Leavitt said.

The Bush EPA proposal would cap emissions of acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide and smog-causing nitrogen oxide from hundreds of power plants in 30 states, mostly east of the Mississippi River. It includes a pollution trading system to allow states, utilities and companies to trade pollution allowances if overall caps are maintained.

Leavitt called the proposal “the biggest investment in the air quality improvement in the nation’s history” and estimated it would cost industry $50 billion over a decade to comply. The result, he said, would be a reduction of nearly 70 percent in sulfur pollution and 40 percent in the smog-causing chemical.

Frank O’Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, an advocacy group, said the interstate transport rule is “a step in the right direction, but it will allow the companies to pollute too much, for too long, and it is in no way a substitute for new source review.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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