Setting the Price on Breathing:

As the brawl rages between the administration and environmentalists over the recently announced changes to the New Source Review (NSR) provision of the Clean Air Act, one should keep an eye on the stakes. It's easy to lose your way in the technical mumbo jumbo of terms like "retrofitting," "actual emissions baseline," and "PALs," to say nothing of what constitutes "routine maintenance." But in the end, it's the same old battle greens and industry types have been fighting for decades: a zero-sum match pitting revenue against public health.

Here, in brief, is how NSR works. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, existing power companies were temporarily grandfathered -- i.e., given permission to keep operating without installing modern pollution controls. If those plants made major modifications, however, they would be considered "new sources" of pollution and forced to meet current air quality standards. But major power companies modified -- some would argue rebuilt -- their plants while ignoring the law. In the late 1990s the EPA finally began to take action, launching a massive investigation and in 1999 filing lawsuits against several major power companies.

Now, with the administration proposal to modify New Source Review, these and other plants being investigated by the EPA could get off the hook. And in fact, even as they defend the new rules now, industry spokespersons admit that cleaner equipment was not installed because, well, it was expensive.

One such spokesperson is Darren McKinney, with the National Association of Manufacturers. Under the Clinton administration's rules, "efficiency and environmental improvements were put on hold because of the fear of having to spend a whole heckuva lot more dollars," he told Knight Ridder last week. "We know for a fact that projects have been stalled and mothballed."

The Bush administration froze any enforcement of NSR in 2001, and now has announced major rollbacks. The EPA, which only a year ago was on the verge of implementing NSR to reduce massive amounts of air pollution, has caved to industry complaints and agreed to change the rules. Not that the about-face surprised anyone: An EPA source warned in May that the administration, led by Cheney and backed by powerful execs, could force a reversal of NSR policy. The administration insists that this plan is not only cheaper, it will reduce air pollution. And although this is the same administration that pledged to make its decisions on the basis of the best science available, it has provided no scientific analysis to bolster either case. Instead, it primarily cites industry complaints about NSR.

And it gets worse. EPA adminstrator Christie Todd Whitman claimed recently that the new rules would have no impact on current lawsuits, a stance that seems naïve, not to say disingenuous. "If Congress today were to declare heroin possession legal," observes David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "how many heroin possession cases do you think the D.A. would continue to prosecute? It has an inevitable effect on existing enforcement."

At least two companies are currently negotiating agreements in court, and both may now escape their pending billion dollar settlements. And if these and other plants are avoiding the costs of prosecution and compliance, we can be sure someone else is paying instead -- namely, children and the elderly. The Clean Air Task Force estimates that pollution from the 51 plants at the focus of NSR litigation shortens the lives of between 5,500 and 9000 people annually. Most of those affected are the very young and very old.

Children, who breathe more and faster and whose lungs are still developing, are far more vulnerable to the effects of smog and particulate matter in the air. In fact, a study released in January by the California EPA's Air Resources Board cited definitive evidence that smog causes asthma in children. Air pollution has also been linked to low birth weight, poor lung development, heart defects and infant mortality.

In the elderly, meanwhile, ozone smog can increase susceptibility to influenza and other viruses, according to the American Lung Association's State of the Air report for 2002. Other studies have found associations between ozone levels and daily death rates among senior citizens. And clearly, smog and particulate matter only exacerbate common respiratory conditions among elderly people such as emphysema and bronchitis.

The new rules will almost certainly mean spikes (or even in the most hopeful scenario, no reductions) in air pollution. Certainly enviro groups like U.S. PIRG and NRDC say so. But even state regulators are sounding more nervous these days. Jeff Saitis, executive director of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, hinted that the state -- not exactly famous for its environmental heroism --might have to take action. If federal rules are relaxed, he told The Austin American-Statesman, "there will be healthy discussions here about whether the state should have laws more stringent than the federal government."

Indeed, a discussion of whether we may need to roll back the rollbacks might be healthy for everyone involved.