EPA Head Says 'Clear Skies' Will Clear Lungs

A new federal air pollution initiative will produce $93 billion in health savings in the year 2020 and save 12,000 lives, Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Whitman said Tuesday.

The total cost of the plan, called Clear Skies, is $6.5 billion, she said.

Whitman, who used the Maryland State House to make her case for the plan, said Maryland alone would save $3 billion in health and other benefits and prevent 400 premature deaths annually.

The initiative, announced last year by President Bush, aims to curb emission of three pollutants -- sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury -- and reduce the number of asthma attacks, cases of chronic bronchitis and breathing-related emergency room visits.

By 2020, Whitman said, Clear Skies would in Maryland reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 92 percent, nitrogen oxide emissions by 80 percent and mercury emissions by 85 percent, as well as reduce nitrogen pollution reaching the Chesapeake Bay by 15 to 30 percent.

While Whitman's words were welcome, the feeling among environmentalists is that Clear Skies moves too slowly, and states will have to spend more to deal with pollution as older power plants continue to operate, said Theresa Pierno, executive director of Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

"Well, certainly we heard some very positive things," Pierno said."[But] the thought is that we're not going to see the upgrades and the kind of renovations to the coal-fired [power] plants as quickly as we need to see them."

Older power plants have been a cloud over the agency's air quality agenda for some time. Problems for the agency increased after it relaxed rules requiring power producers to bring older plants up to current environmental standards when they upgrade them, a program known as New Source Review.

Nine states, including Maryland, sued the agency to stop the changes. The rule changes permit older, dirtier plants that might have been decommissioned to continue operating long past their designed lifespan, environmentalists said.

The lawsuit doesn't make sense, Whitman said, as the rules the EPA are changing would have little real effect on power plants.

Whitman also touted a program designed to improve air quality in schools.

Students from St. Mary's school in Annapolis were on hand to promote the program, which would have them performing research into the pollutants that trigger asthma attacks.

About one in five American schools have unsatisfactory air quality, which causes problems for nearly 11 million students, Whitman said.

The program, which provides technical aid to schools that are testing their air quality, would receive an additional $3 million in funding under Bush's proposed budget, for a total of $24 million.