Environmental groups have decried a recent federal court decision striking down a 2005 rule that would have mandated steep cuts in smokestack emissions, saying it will hamper efforts to reduce acid rain and smog.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit unanimously struck down the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which was supposed to curb the air pollution that damages northeastern forests and lakes.
“CAIR would have essentially ended acid rain in the Adirondacks,” said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council.
“This is a disaster,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the Washington-based Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group. “It’s particularly harmful for downwind states like New York. It will slow progress, that’s for sure.”
CAIR was created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; it required power plants from Maine to Texas to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 70 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 60 percent. About half of the cuts would have been made by 2009, while the remainder would have been made by 2015. These cuts would have been made through the cap-and-trade system, which allows older plants to buy credits from plants with newer and cleaner equipment.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CAIR would have prevented about 17,000 premature deaths each year and saved up to $100 billion in health benefits.
In its ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals said that the EPA had overstepped its bounds by calling for stricter standards than the amendments to the Clean Air Act enacted in 1990.
In a statement, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said: “The potential impact of the court decision is serious and could affect efforts to further reduce acid deposition as well as important public health protections. [The] DEC, along with many others, are trying to understand the full ramifications of the decision. Given that this was the centerpiece of the [Bush] administration’s clean air effort, the impact is serious, but we’re still evaluating.”
The state has already reduced emissions to nearly the level called for by the Clean Air Interstate Rule’s first phase, according to the New York State Department of Education.
Researchers at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have been studying 30 lakes in the southwest corner of the Adirondack Park, one of the areas most severely impacted by acid rain, since 1994, with the goal of assessing how these lakes have fared since amendments to the Clean Air Act were passed in 1994. So far, 26 of the 30 lakes have shown a decline in acidity.
Because CAIR had support from the power industry and the Bush administration, the U.S. Court of Appeals decision came as something of a surprise. Still, there was some opposition, and the successful legal challenge was mounted by two power companies, Minnesota Power Corp. and Entergy.
“We thought it had passed the legal hurdles,” Sheehan said.
Many utilities had already taken steps to comply with the law, Sheehan said.
Environmental groups will likely lean on the EPA to fix the problems the U.S. Court of Appeals pinpointed in CAIR, while also pressing for Congress to pass legislation that would require the emission reductions contained in CAIR.
“We’re trying to do both at the same time,” Sheehan said.
“We have no confidence in the Bush administration,” O’Donnell said. “We’re hoping Congress will take a look at it. It is back to the drawing board.”