By Mark Johnson
Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. - A federal appeals court Friday blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from easing clean air rules on aging power plants, refineries and factories, one of the regulatory changes that had been among the top environmental priorities of the White House.

The new rules, strongly supported by industry representatives, would have allowed older plants to modernize without having to install the most advanced pollution controls.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington declared that the EPA rules violate the Clean Air Act and that only Congress can authorize such changes.

Fourteen states and a number of cities, including New York, San Francisco and Washington, had sued to block the change in 2003, saying it would allow more air pollution.

"This is an enormous victory for clean air and for the enforcement of the law and an overwhelming rejection of the Bush administration's efforts to gut the law," said New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who led the lawsuit for the states. "It is a rejection of a flawed policy."

Peter Lehner, Spitzer's top environmental lawyer, said the decision applies to about 800 power plants and up to 17,000 factories nationwide.

Under the Clean Air Act, operators who do anything more than routine maintenance are required to add more pollution-cutting devices. Under the proposed change, industrial facilities could have avoided paying for expensive emissions-cutting devices if they spent less than 20 percent of the plant's value, Lehner said.

The EPA had argued that the rule change would not increase pollution.

The three-judge panel said that the EPA's reading of the Clean Air Act was "a Humpty Dumpty world" interpretation and that Congress had made clear it wanted older facilities to add pollution controls whenever they make modifications.

"We are disappointed that the court did not find in favor of the United States," said EPA spokesman John Millett. "We are reviewing and analyzing the opinion and cannot comment further at this time."

Industry groups have contended that the Clean Air Act, as now written, discourages plant operators from modernizing their equipment.

Friday's decision "is a step backward in the protection of air quality in the United States," said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a Washington-based group representing several power-generating companies. "What is it the environmental community thinks they've won? They've won the ability to place roadblocks in front of energy efficiency projects. This is terrible news."

The lawsuit was filed by New York, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin.

U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington: www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/internet.nsf

Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov

Published: March 18, 2006