The Bush administration has dropped enforcement actions against dozens of coal-fired power plants that were under investigation for violating the Clean Air Act and allegedly spewing thousands of tons of illegal pollution into the air, EPA officials said Wednesday.
Until now, the Bush administration had said it would vigorously pursue the enforcement actions, which were launched by the Clinton administration.
However, the Bush administration recently eased a provision of the Clean Air Act that requires companies to install modern pollution controls when they build new plants or expand or modernize old ones. Under the new policy, the alleged release of pollution that sparked the original enforcement would be legal.
For months, top Bush administration officials had said that the new rules would apply only prospectively -- that past violations would still be pursued. But EPA officials told regional enforcement officials in a meeting in Seattle Tuesday evening and in a conference call Wednesday morning that the agency would no longer pursue cases of past violations under the old rule.
EPA attorneys were surprised by the change in policy.
"Up until now, people were saying it's business as usual," said one EPA attorney, who participated in the conference call. He spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
The only violations of the old rule that would be prosecuted are the seven cases against electric utilities that are already in court.
"This confirms my worst fears," said Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.). "First the administration weakens our clean air law, and now it won't enforce it."
The announcement provides a tangible example of the effect of the Bush administration's efforts to ease environmental regulations, environmental activists said.
The Bush administration's plan would allow companies to spend up to 20% of the cost of a polluting unit on repairing and modernizing it before they would be required to install new pollution controls.
None of the investigations against coal-fired power plants that are being dropped are located in California.
Several of the plants, however, are just across the border in Arizona.
Eight cement plants and a number of other factories in California are being investigated for violating the old regulation, known as new source review. EPA officials said they believed they would still be able to pursue those cases.
EPA representatives said in a statement: "There has been no decision by the agency to drop all new source review enforcement cases. As the agency has consistently stated, we are vigorously pursing all filed cases, and we will evaluate each pending investigation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether it will be pursued or set aside."
However, two attorneys for the agency and a senior advisor to EPA administrator Marianne Horinko confirmed that the investigations against coal-fired power plants had been abandoned.
Environmentalists said EPA's decisions would result in dirtier air for decades to come.
"It's like our worst nightmare," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, an environmental research group. "They're taking the enforcement cop off the beat."
Times staff writer Gary Polakovic contributed to this report.