EPA under fire for reducing enforcement

Responding to reports that the Bush administration has decided to drop dozens of clean-air enforcement actions against utilities and other industrial polluters, Senate Democrats are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general and the Judiciary Committee to conduct inquiries into the agency's enforcement program.

EPA enforcement chief J.P. Suarez informed enforcement agents Tuesday that the agency would drop the cases, which are being conducted under the Clean Air Act's New Source Review program, which regulates new emission releases from existing plants. The decision brought immediate protests from Democrats and environmentalists, who accused the administration of giving "pollution pardons" to industry.

EPA has said it has not formally made a decision to drop all of the cases, and that it will review them on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the agency should end the investigations if it is found that they would not have been brought if a set of August reforms to the NSR program had been in place when the cases were initiated. Those changes relax a number of key NSR provisions and have been denounced by Democrats and environmentalists.

Senate Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called Thursday for immediate hearings into the decision, saying, "The White House's policy is to coddle the big polluters, and the public be damned. Doling out pollution pardons may make some big political contributors happy, but the American people will pay the price by breathing dirtier air."

Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said, "The EPA's decision will have severe health consequences, especially for children, who are more vulnerable to the effects of pollution." Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked EPA's IG to launch a separate inquiry into the issue and urged incoming EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt to reverse the decision.

The dispute over Suarez' decision to drop the NSR investigations is the latest of several that have hit EPA's enforcement program in recent months. This summer, the agency's criminal enforcement program came under fire after agents accused the Bush administration of intentionally ignoring glaring resource and personnel needs. Those complaints prompted House and Senate Democrats to seek an IG report on the program that ultimately backed up most of the allegations made by the agency's staff.