Saturday, September 17, 2005

Senate Republicans push for EPA rule waivers


Senate Republicans push for EPA rule waivers

By Chris Baltimore

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Republicans are pursuing legislation that would grant the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sweeping authority to waive temporarily clean air and water laws in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Environmentalists and Democrats say the push by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe could give the EPA carte blanche to dismantle important environmental protections governing power plant emissions and other industry.

The EPA could use the proposed 120-day waiver authority to speed storm debris disposal and issue permits to discharge contaminated flood waters, the agency said Friday.

Such waivers would be allowed if it "is necessary to respond, in a timely and effective manner, to a situation or damage related to Hurricane Katrina," according to a portion of the text provided by Inhofe's committee.

Democrats and environmentalists said the bill could be the first volley in a Republican push to dismantle clean air and water protections, and that waivers could be extended indefinitely.

An Inhofe spokesman insists that EPA would still have to weigh "any consequence to public health or the environment" before acting.

"This really is an open invitation to every special interest to appeal to the EPA for a break, using the hurricane as an excuse," said Frank O'Donnell at Clean Air Watch.

"We must not use this tragedy as an excuse to let oil companies and other polluters evade the protections that safeguard the public's health," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New Jersey Democrat.

"Those who seek to criticize this legislation under the guise of environmental concerns have it backwards as the use of the authority is specifically to protect public health," Inhofe said in a statement.

The Bush administration could extend the waiver for 18 more months if needed, Inhofe's statement said.

The administration is "reviewing what waivers may be necessary to enable a speedy, safe and complete response to a natural disaster of this magnitude," said Michelle St. Martin at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"It's a blank check," John Walke, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of Inhofe's bill.

If industry can link Hurricane Katrina damage with rising energy costs, the bill would give them a just cause to seek a raft of exemptions, Walke said.

Such an argument would not be a stretch -- the U.S. government said this week that natural gas bills this winter could be up to 70 percent higher than a year ago, partly due to hurricane disruptions.

The American Chemistry Council said that Congress should pass legislation that allows industry to skirt temporarily state and federal acid rain and smog rules by switching from clean-burning natural gas to coal, which is cheaper but dirtier.