The politics of pollution unmasked 

Raising the veil on Southern Co., the White House and one Georgia senator

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Cleland himself wouldn't speak to Creative Loafing about his behind-the-scenes stance. But discovery of the letter set off alarms in the office of the senator, who is expected to face a tough GOP opposition this fall in his re-election bid.

"I don't think he's taken a position on New Source Review," insisted spokeswoman Eileen Force. "Frequently with federal regulations, they do need reviewing because the world changes and federal regulations need to change with it."

That was Thursday. On Friday, Press Secretary Patricia Murphy called back to say she was concerned Cleland would be portrayed as anti-environmental.

"There really is no stronger friend of the environment," Murphy said. "The letter expressed his concern over what could be an unintended consequence [of the New Source Review regulations] and a disincentive for routine maintenance."

But clearly such letters do matter. As Schaeffer indicated, the senators' letters made it clear that EPA regulators attempting to enforce the Clean Air Act on powerful utilities had nearly as little traction in Congress as they did in the Bush White House. Such letters also effectively green-lighted the administration's evisceration of New Source Review.

Environmentalists still are hopeful that Cleland will come around to their point of view as the Senate debates the energy plan this week. Financial and grassroots backing from environmental groups tend to be key for successful Democratic senatorial candidates.

But it's worth noting that Southern Co. is the second biggest giver to Cleland's current re-election campaign, and was his third biggest contributor during the 2000 election cycle, forking over a total of $59,450, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

When the energy plan was released last May 17, it amounted to a wish list for the energy industry. The plan would give $38 billion in tax breaks and research funding to the oil, coal, electric and nuclear power industries, according to a report released by the Georgia Public Interest Research Group. Most of the beneficiaries aren't exactly hurting: They recorded $1.6 trillion in revenues in fiscal year 2000.

Congress' General Accounting Office is trying to shed some light on how Cheney came up with his proposals. In a landmark case, the GAO has sued the White House for records on whom the task force consulted in devising the plan. So far though, Cheney and his lawyers have dodged efforts by the GAO and private watchdog groups to get thousands of documents generated during the drafting of the energy plan.

In the meantime, Bush followed the plan's recommendations by ordering EPA to review New Source Review and told the Justice Department to review the lawsuits.

Settlement negotiations, which had stalled early in the spring, "landed with a thud with the May energy report," Schaeffer says. "What basically killed it all together, killed the momentum, was the May energy report, which, in the middle of our lawsuits says, 'We're going to take another look at the law that's being enforced.'"

On Valentine's Day, Bush gave polluters more good news. He unveiled his "Clear Skies" program, which would weaken the Clean Air Act's requirements to reduce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. It also aims to establish a pollution-credit trading program that industry has for years wanted to use instead of New Source Review.

Two weeks later, Schaeffer resigned.

Lieberman invited EPA Administrator Whitman to a March 7 Senate hearing that the Connecticut Democrat convened in response to Schaeffer's resignation. Whitman stated overtly that power companies might as well do what they'd pretty much been doing since last May: Forget about settling for now. She noted that the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, is due to rule on an appeal filed by the Tennessee Valley Authority challenging the EPA's cleanup orders.

Following Whitman, Schaeffer provided the rare view of a high-level bureaucrat who could tell the world frankly what had happened in his agency.

"This outrage [of weakening the New Source] should be stopped, and it can be if we are willing to enforce the Clean Air Act. But EPA's efforts to do so are threatened by a political attack on the enforcement process that I have never seen in 12 years at the agency.

"The energy lobbyists, working closely with their friends in the White House and the Department of Energy, are working furiously to weaken the laws we are trying to enforce. Not surprisingly, defendants have slipped away from the negotiating table one by one, and our momentum toward settling these cases has effectively stopped."

What's most depressing is that just as the Bush administration undermines the Clean Air Act, the link between air pollution and severe health problems is proving to be stronger than previously thought.

Air pollution long has been suspected of triggering asthma attacks, but a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet in early February found for the first time that smog can cause asthma. The study was conducted by researchers with the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and the University of Southern California.

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