updated 9/16/2005 8:05:53 AM ET 2005-09-16T12:05:53

The chairman of the Senate’s environment committee is drafting legislation that would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend any anti-pollution regulations for 120 days to help in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

The EPA’s chief briefed Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and his colleagues on Wednesday. Stephen Johnson told senators he was not aware of anything he needed at this point, committee spokesman Bill Holbrook said Thursday.

But the EPA administration also said “there are still a number of unknowns and couldn’t project what he would need considering those unknowns,” Holbrook said.

The EPA has suspended some of its clean-air requirements in the aftermath of Katrina to ease the flow of gasoline supplies.

EPA chief would have final say
A draft of a bill by Inhofe would give the EPA head the power for 120 days to waive or modify agency laws and rules if needed to respond to the hurricane. Governors would have to be consulted, but the administrator would have final say, according to the bill.

Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., said he opposed a blanket waiver of environmental laws.

“If adopted, this waiver could undermine public health protections. We should be focusing our energy on protecting the health and safety of people impacted by this hurricane, not paving the way for environmental abuse,” Jeffords said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., also said he would fight Inhofe’s “sweeping, unnecessary and ill-conceived” plan, and any attempt to attach it to a bill authorizing relief from Katrina. He said it could allow EPA to put off telling Congress of any waivers for up to two weeks afterward. A provision also says the EPA can seek an extension to continue issuing waivers after the 120 days laid out in the bill.

‘Blank check’ feared
Environmentalists also denounced the emerging proposal. “Here comes the mother of all environmental rollbacks,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the Clean Air Watch advocacy group. “This could become a blank check for big polluters. It would also be a terrible precedent.”

The Senate panel was expected to complete its version of the bill Friday, according to a congressional source.

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