Senate Hearing to Ohio Environmental Groups: Thanks, but No Thanks

A few area environmental groups are upset they weren't invited to the table to discuss revisions to the Clean Air Act at a special U.S. Senate subcommittee field hearing in downtown Cincinnati on F

Mar 2, 2000 at 2:06 pm

A few area environmental groups are upset they weren't invited to the table to discuss revisions to the Clean Air Act at a special U.S. Senate subcommittee field hearing in downtown Cincinnati on Feb. 28.

So the Sierra Club, Tennessee Valley Energy Reform Coalition (TVERC), the Ohio Environmental Council and the Ohio Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) hosted their own press conference before the committee hearing, which was held in the Hamilton County Administration building.

"It's ridiculous for the subcommittee to travel to Cincinnati and not hear from Midwesterners about how bad our air is," said Rachel Belz of Ohio Citizen Action.

Of the seven witnesses at the hearing, one was a Congressman, one represented the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one represented a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group and the remaining four spoke for power companies, including Cinergy.

The hearing was called by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chair of the subcommittee on Clean Air, Wetlands, Private Property and Nuclear Safety, and attended by committee member Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. It was one of the first steps in a four- to five-year process of rewriting part of the Clean Air Act, specifically a section called New Source Review, according to Sally Nichols, Inhofe's assistant press secretary.

Power plants built before 1977 don't have to meet modern pollution control standards — which further restrict nitrogen oxide and sulfur releases, among others — unless plant owners make major modifications to them, according to existing New Source Review standards.

Just what constitutes a major modification has been a contentious subject for power companies, the EPA and environmental groups for years, according to Nichols. It's been so contentious that in November the U.S. Justice Department, acting on behalf of the EPA, filed lawsuits against seven power companies, including Cinergy. The lawsuits accuse the power companies of modifying their power generators without also installing equipment to adequately control smog, acid rain and soot, according to a Justice Department press release.

Cinergy spent $650 million in pollution control equipment since 1990, nearly cutting its sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide releases in half, according to company spokesperson Steve Brash. EPA regulations call for an 85 percent reduction since 1990, Brash said, which would cost Cinergy at least $500 million more to meet.

Sulfur dioxide is a component of acid rain, said Stephen Smith, TVERC executive director. Nitrous oxide becomes ozone, a harmful element in the lower atmosphere. Quantities of these exacerbate illnesses such as asthma, he said.

Meanwhile, TVERC and other groups didn't know there would be a Senate hearing until about a week before the hearing, according to Smith.

So why weren't area environmental groups invited to the table to discuss the Clean Air Act revisions?

"I didn't design the agenda," Inhofe said, adding that he wasn't familiar with Ohio environmental groups.

"It wasn't intentional," Nichols said, adding that those who can't speak at the hearing often submit written comments. "We definitely want their comments."

When told that the environmental groups felt they were being excluded from the process, Voinovich said, "I think that this is not the end of this issue."

Inhofe said the main purpose of the hearing was to work toward consistent EPA regulations that are easier to understand. "A lot of refineries and power companies are not going to be able to compete with other countries," he said before the hearing.

Smith said many power companies announced in 1977 that they eventually planned to phase out most of their older, coal-burning plants, so the EPA allowed them to keep running even though they didn't meet Clean Air Act standards. Now, because of pressure from potential deregulation of the electric industry, the same companies want to keep using these older plants and are hoping for friendlier regulations.

"And that's not fair," Smith said.