- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2000

When the power went out in parts of the Midwest during last July's deadly heat wave, consumers risked more than discomfort. There were nearly 200 heat-related fatalities over a stretch when daily temperatures routinely rose into the upper 90s and above. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, for one, was angry about the outages. "Consumers," he said, "should not have to wonder whether the lights will go out when the temperature hits 90 degrees."

This month a department task force investigating the blackouts warned that consumers remain at risk of outages. That's because the utility industry faced with a deregulated, more competitive business has resorted to cost-cutting measures that undermine the system's reliability, the panel said. Mr. Richardson is now demanding that Congress come up with a legislative fix to prevent future blackouts and brownouts.

Leave it to the Clinton administration to protect consumers from deregulation and cost-cutting. If Mr. Richardson really wants to keep the lights on and the air-conditioners running, he ought to have a chat with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Carol Browner. She's been engaged in a long-running regulatory battle with Midwestern and Northeastern utilities that is ostensibly about cleaning up the air but which threatens consumers with, in effect, "Browner outs."

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department, acting on behalf of Mrs. Browner, filed suit against seven utilities for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act. The case involves 32 power plants, which Mrs. Browner says violated the law by repairing and maintaining their plants without making required state-of-the-art upgrades to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, an ingredient in smog or ground-level ozone. The law originally exempted existing power plants from some of the law's clean-air standards with the understanding that any major overhaul of these "grandfathered" plants would trigger the standards and pollution controls costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Cost doesn't matter to Mrs. Browner.

"These pollutants," she said, "move far beyond their sources. Drifting on the wind, the smog and acid rain generated by a Midwest coal plant can trigger breathing problems, deforestation, dying lakes and fish kills through the Mid-Atlantic regions and up and down the East Coast all the way through to New England." She went on to link plant emissions to a 118 percent increase in asthma-related deaths among, yes, children. "We want the new century to be breathtaking for all and a struggle to breathe for none," she said.

It's all quite moving, but completely unscientific. Mrs. Browner hasn't the slightest idea whether the emissions increased asthma deaths, killed lakes or kept the Washington Redskins out of the playoffs for seven years. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine linked asthma to exposure to cockroach "emissions." A Harvard study linked it to excess weight. The experts just don't know. To suggest that reducing power plant emissions would solve, or even reduce, the problem is simplistic and possibly dangerous to children whose parents trust Nurse Browner to handle the problem.

Nor does research suggest that the Northeast is a dumping ground for Midwestern smog. Environmental officials whom EPA itself gathered in an organization known as the Ozone Transport Assessment Group downplayed theories of Midwest smog shipments. "In general," the group reported in 1997, "local (30-150 miles) transport contributes most to the non-attainment of the … standard. Beyond 100-200 miles the ozone concentrations tend to decrease with increasing transport distances." Thus, if New York has a smog problem, neither New York nor EPA can really blame it on someone else.

Notwithstanding the science, Mrs. Browner has refused to relent in her attacks on the industry. First she ordered 22 states to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. Then, when a federal appeals court suspended the rule after Midwestern states and utilities sued to stop it, she tried suing utilities for making the illegal repairs.

Utility officials argue that Congress wanted to apply the emission standards to major modifications that expanded the plant's capacity and, hence, its emissions. For 25 years they have been repairing and in some cases replacing component parts tubes, pipes, turbine blades and more without fear of triggering standards that would require them to retrofit plants with costly new emissions-control equipment. And since they have to make such changes to remain in compliance with state and federal regulations, the changes were not exactly a secret either.

But now that utilities face fines of up to $25,000 a day on changes dating back to the early 1980s they risk incurring potentially enormous charges in proceeding with work they once considered routine. Consumers could find their service unplugged as a result. In a letter to the Senate Republican and Democratic leadership, business and union officials warned, "EPA's action has effectively paralyzed the electric industry's repair and maintenance programs for coal and gas fired units and this could have severe implications for supply reliability in the near future."

So if Mr. Richardson wants to make sure the power stays on during the next heat wave, he better do what he can stop possible "Browner outs."

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