Originally created 05/18/99

Ruling could thwart emissions plans



ATLANTA -- Georgia environmental officials and activists are worried that an appeals court decision blocking stricter federal air-quality standards could shelve new state rules governing power plant emissions.

A three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel late last week rejected standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1997 as an unconstitutional use of power reserved for Congress.

The ruling will not affect the Atlanta region, which has been stripped of federal highway funds because it is out of compliance with smog and soot standards established in the Clean Air Act of 1990.

But the lack of stricter requirements is expected to allow smaller cities such as Augusta, Macon and Columbus to escape the sanctions imposed on metro Atlanta.

Less certain is whether the decision will delay EPA imposition of a requirement that Georgia and 21 other states reduce their nitrogen oxide emissions. The state Environmental Protection Division is due to release a plan early next month on how to allocate "allowances" for those emissions among Georgia power plants, which generate most nitrogen oxide.

The EPD is scheduled to hold public hearings on the proposal in July and September.

"(The ruling) is throwing a lot of stuff up in the air," said Robert Pregulman, Atlanta-based Southern field director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "It changes the rules on everything we've been working on."

Tony Cutrer, compliance program manager for the EPD's air protection branch, said the agency is continuing to prepare for the release of its emissions reduction plan as if nothing had happened.

As part of that process, the state Public Service Commission is to vote today on a staff recommendation that the EPD sell 3 percent of the emissions allowances -- or 900 tons of emissions -- to new electric companies interested in building cleaner natural-gas-fired power plants.

But Mr. Cutrer says the eight states that are suing the EPA to stop the new nitrogen oxide emissions rule may use last week's decision as ammunition in their case.

Dave Williams and Walter C. Jones are based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.