Senate Backs Looser Clean Air Rules

Voting along regional as much as partisan lines, the Republican-controlled Senate narrowly defeated a Democratic effort to delay pollution rules that allow aging coal-fired factories and utilities to modernize without installing expensive antipollution devices.

Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, wanted to delay the relaxation in the rules for six months while a panel of scientists studied the health effects of increased pollution.

Administration officials and industry leaders hailed the 50-46 Jan. 22 vote as a rejection of environmentalists' claims that the new rules constitute a "rollback" of the Clean Air Act.

"These new NSR [New Source Review] rules will help promote safer, cleaner and more efficient factories, refineries and power plants," said Jeffrey Marks, the National Association of Manufacturer's air quality director.

The lawmakers instead voted, 51-45, for a Republican measure that would let the rules go into effect while the increased and decreased pollution effects are studied.

The Sierra Club sharply criticized Senators for voting for what it said were "loopholes that allow oil companies and power plants to produce more smog and soot without concern for the health of families and communities around the country."

Other environmentalists welcomed the vote totals, despite their loss. Six Republicans, five from New England states that are affected by coal pollution plus John McCain, R-Ariz., broke ranks with the administration.

"This vote shows that clean air is a bipartisan issue," declared Rebecca Stanfield of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Four Democrats who frequently vote with environmentalists were absent for the vote.

But the Republican majority could also claim a bi-partisan victory, as Democrats from energy-producing states such as Arkansas and Louisiana voted with the Republicans.

The fact that so many Republicans voted against a Bush environmental policy may be significant in the narrowly divided Senate. Both environmentalists and industry representatives are predicting that the clash over New Source Review is the first of what will likely be a series of closely fought battles over the environment in the coming year.

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