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Smoked Out

Council wants more info on EPA lawsuit


With the December 26 deadline fast approaching, members of the Charlotte City Council are asking for more information before deciding what -- if anything -- to do about officially urging North Carolina to join a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to overturn its recent gutting of the Clean Air Act. The County Commission is not expected to support the proposal.

Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon said that in discussions with fellow members on the City Council many had implied that they would like more information on the lawsuit before they "weigh in on this issue." He said he would ask the office of the City Manager, Pam Syfert, to look into the matter and come up with a suggested course of action -- if any.

Cannon said he plans to move on the issue even if no one else decides to join.

"I wanted to get the (city manager's office) to come back with a staff opinion in terms of how they feel about this issue, and hopefully that'll be something that can lend some guidance," the Democrat said. "If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd probably say there seems to be a majority of interest to want to move forward on doing something -- the question becomes, what is that something?"

A few weeks ago we told you how the Bush administration's EPA rule changes will allow thousands of older power plants, oil refineries and industrial units to make extensive upgrades without having to install new anti-pollution devices. ("It'll Only Get Worse," Nov. 19). In essence, under the new rules, a utility or factory could make tens of millions of dollars worth of improvements without being required to install pollution controls.

Plant owners are currently required to install pollution-control devices if they undertake anything more than "routine maintenance" on their plants. Industries have long argued that this standard is too vague and hinders substantial investment in cleaner, more efficient equipment. Bush's new rule says that as much as 20 percent of the cost of replacing a plant's essential production equipment -- a boiler, generator or turbine -- could be spent and the owner would still be exempt from installing any pollution controls.

The new rules constitute a sweeping and cost-saving victory for industries, allowing them to continue to emit hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere, and to save millions of dollars in pollution equipment costs, even if they increase the amounts of pollutants they emit. (North Carolina has 14 coal-fired power plants.) In response to these sweeping changes, several cities and 12 states in the Northeast filed a lawsuit against the EPA to try to block the Bush administration's changes to the Clean Air Act. The deadline to join the lawsuit is December 26.

Local activists like Nancy C. Bryant, president of the Carolinas Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), lobbied City Council members and county commissioners to join the lawsuit to help protect Charlotte's air quality. According to the American Lung Association, Charlotte is already 8th in the nation for dirty air. Moreover, many activists argued that one of the biggest threats to the Queen City's air quality is pollution that drifts in from our neighbors, specifically coal-fired power plants to the south and west of us, all the more reason why Charlotte should get involved. The CCAC submitted a letter of resolution to NC Governor Mike Easley urging him to join in the lawsuit, and sent a copy of the letter to all the City Council members and County Commissioners to sign.

Although Councilman Cannon said he felt a majority of City Council members were in favor of throwing their support behind the letter, as of press time at least one fellow Democrat was having second thoughts. Councilwoman Susan Burgess said after speaking with City Attorney Mac McCarley, who told her the city would have to share in the legal costs of a lawsuit against the EPA, that she was going to officially ask the council to gather more information before the December 26 deadline.

"Whether or not we sign on the suit, we will reap the benefits of the suit, if they're successful," Burgess said. "So there's really no reason to sign on to the suit. It would be expensive, and we could have some say in the way the suit progresses, but it probably would not change if we were there or not. We would have to share the legal expenses."

Other members also felt the issue needs more consideration before they can take an official position.

"While I agree with the concerns regarding pollution coming from other states, I think we need to consider all avenues and the full context," said Councilman John Tabor. "Before we take any action on this issue, we should consider that the EPA controls our fate with non-attainment in 2005. Much of that might be subjective. I would be concerned if Charlotte and North Carolina were seen as "suing' the EPA at that time. It may be perception, but the results may be reality."

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