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Reports thrash EPA under Leavitt

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WASHINGTON — A year ago, then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt packed his bags for Washington, promising the nation's air and water would be cleaner under his stewardship as the newly appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But after a year of on-the-job schooling, Leavitt is finding out the grades others give his performance aren't nearly as good as the ones he gives himself.

On Thursday, the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC), based in Bozeman, Mont., issued a 2004 report card on the Bush administration's environmental policies and gave the administration's approach to air quality — which falls under Leavitt's domain — an F grade.

Drinking water garnered a C-plus, Superfund and brownfields a C-minus, and water quality a B. Overall, the administration earned a C-plus grade on the environment.

The group, which encourages environmental policy based on free-market incentives and creative solutions rather than regulatory mandates, gave the lackluster grades for entirely different reasons than did another recent study.

That study by the Center for American Progress and OMB Watch thrashed the Bush administration — and Leavitt in particular — in its own report, asserting that industry special interests have been given carte blanche to rewrite air pollution regulations to the detriment of public health.

The study points out the Bush plan, called Clear Skies, would allow "three times more toxic mercury, 50 percent more sulfur and hundreds of thousands more tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides."

According to another study by OMB Watch, the EPA "has continued its record of doing little for the environment" and that "what little it has done in this time shows a pattern of placing corporate interests over the public interest."

The study found the EPA had failed to achieve 73 percent of its "benchmarks" for cleaning up the environment that the agency announced in December 2003, just after Leavitt took office.

Both report cards stand in contrast to a recent report by EPA that boasted that total emissions of the six principal pollutants identified in the Clean Air Act dropped again in 2003, "signaling that America's air is the cleanest ever in three decades."

"Thanks to this progress, today's air is the cleanest most Americans have ever breathed," Leavitt said. "Now, EPA is taking up the challenge to accelerate the pace of that progress into the future."

How can Leavitt make a claim of "substantial improvement" when groups on all sides are taking shots at what his agency isn't doing?

Leavitt's claim is based on measuring results from when the Clean Air Act was first implemented in 1970, and from the implementation of a new acid rain program that went into effect in 1990. Improvement in recent years has been slow, and even Leavitt admits that the dramatic reductions seen after 1970 and 1990 are likely not in the forecast.

"Cleaning the air gets more difficult as the maximum benefits from existing rules are achieved and the low-hanging fruit is gone," Leavitt said. "The sharp cuts of the early years of the acid rain program are behind us now, and it's time to take the next step to protect people's health."

The next step, Leavitt says, is the Clean Air Interstate Rule, which would use the same cap-and-trade approach as the acid rain program. It would create financial incentives for electrical utilities to look for new low-cost ways to reduce emissions.

Leavitt predicts dramatic reductions akin to the acid rain program if implemented.

Cap-and-trade is a process where industry is given a capped number of "credits" — in effect, an amount of pollution companies are allowed to emit legally — that can then be traded with other companies.

That approach, the OMB Watch report states, means that "some companies will be allowed to pollute more than others . . . , and the communities sited near them will be subjected to more intense levels of emissions than others."

And in areas where companies choose to buy up pollution credits rather than install new pollution controls, air quality could actually diminish, even though regional air quality improves, it charges.

The PERC report takes Leavitt to task for his three-pronged approach to meeting federal ozone standards, which includes (1) mandatory automobile inspection and maintenance programs, (2) reducing pollution before new sources would be permitted, and (3) making certain transportation plans are consistent with air quality plans, in effect reducing how much people drive.

The report found that auto inspections "are relatively ineffective" and they "waste money by testing mainly clean cars." Yet the EPA has fought programs that identify the cars on the road that pollute the most, it said.

Leavitt's approach on new pollution sources is too costly and creates "perverse incentives" in the marketplace, the study found.

The third Leavitt approach, the study found, is doomed to fail because it requires spending thousands of dollars per capita to reduce auto use by only a few percentage points.

"Furthermore, such efforts are poorly targeted since only a few percent of cars contribute most of the pollution, but conformity targets everyone," the study reported. "Technology has proven to be far more effective for dealing with air pollution."

E-mail: spang@desnews.com