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Scrubbing the Skies

Air pollution is no respecter of borders. That truism lies behind the suits filed by eight Northeastern states against Midwestern and Southern power producers whose older coal-fired plants are notorious polluters.

The suits could fizzle, because the states' biggest partner in the litigation - the federal government - is having second thoughts. The Bush administration, which cites a national crisis in energy production, is weighing whether the tough enforcement initiated by its predecessor would cut energy output.

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The key to that tough enforcement has been inspection of power plants to see if they're violating a Clean Air Act provision that allows older coal-burning units to be exempted from installing the antipollution systems required in new plants. The exemption applies only if the older plants have not installed upgrades to enhance their output.

The Clinton EPA found many instances of such upgrades, and took the owners to court to force them to cut pollution. The power companies have argued that they've been victims of overzealous regulators who called even standard maintenance procedures "upgrades."

The Northeastern states counter that people in their region have to put up with the Midwest's wind-borne sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides. The states say they simply can't meet air- quality goals unless distant power plants are cleaned up.

The Northeasterners have the stronger position. The level of pollution spewed from these older coal burners is unacceptable. They've undergone significant upgrading and rebuilding - call it maintenance if you like - to keep them on line over the decades. The technology exists to make them cleaner, and it should be applied - expensive as that may be to power producers, and ultimately to their customers.

There may be more than one way to accomplish this. The administration may be leaning toward putting a cap on overall pollution from these plants and then allowing companies to trade pollution credits. Such schemes have had some success, although they'd leave some pollution-belchers untouched.

The Bush plan for dealing with this issue, expected next month, will be a test of this administration's ability to balance environmental protection and energy concerns.