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Let’s Clear the Air

A public hearing for the entire Northeast will be held in Albany on Monday (March 31) to discuss controversial proposed changes to the Clean Air Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scheduled hearings around the country to provide a forum on its proposed changes to the New Source Review program (NSR). NSR is a program under the EPA’s Clean Air Act that subjects new and existing pollution sources—such as power plants and refineries, as well as existing sources that are making emissions-increasing modifications—to review so that they meet current standards for air emissions.

The hearings came in reaction to the number of requests “received in a timely manner from interested parties across the nation,” according to a press release on EPA’s Web site (www.epa.gov).

Environmental Advocates of New York is one of the interested parties, and they contend that the changes would significantly weaken the Clean Air Act.

“[The changes] would really limit who has to go through NSR,” said Ann Reynolds, director of the Air and Energy Project with Environmental Advocates in the Capital Region.

The changes would put in place a provision that would allow plants to replace equipment without triggering a review, as well as a cost-threshold provision that would also permit companies to forgo review, as long as they didn’t break the cost limit set by the EPA.

Bill Wehrun, the EPA’s officer in charge of the hearing in Albany, explained that the purpose of the new regulation is to create uniform standards applicable to all pollution-emitting companies under the EPA’s watch.

Reynolds argues that the changes would create loopholes that would allow companies to avoid the EPA’s regulation.

“Any power plant could . . . almost totally rebuild their plant,” Reynolds said, “and they would never trigger New Source Review, as long as they did it over several years.”

Ironically enough, the changes were brought about in part by lawsuits with which the EPA was involved, filed because of companies that were already finding loopholes in the NSR program.

“Several of [the companies] started to settle the lawsuits and agreed to huge pollution reductions,” Reynolds said. “[But] when the Bush administration came into power they started negotiating with them about changing the rules.”

These public hearings are the EPA’s response to those who believe the changes will weaken the Clean Air Act.

“This is just a proposed rule. Part of what we’ve asked for comment on is how it should be calibrated,” Wehrun said. “We’ve asked for people to send us information and give us their comments. . . . If people are concerned that our final rule might have the effect of weakening the Clean Air Act, we want people to send us those comments and send us information that will be useful to us in making the right decision at the end of the day.”

The EPA has set up a comment line for people who would like to express their views on the proposed changes (919-541-0211), and urges people to check its New Source Review Web page at http://www.epa.gov/nsr.

The hearing will take place at the Marriott Hotel (189 Wolf Road) at 9 AM. A rally is planned to also start at 9 AM at the Marriott. Organizers invite the public to come for the rally and stay to attend the hearing, which is expected to go on until 10 PM.

—John Gallagher


How Many Children Left Behind?

The Albany-based Alliance for Quality Education—a statewide nonprofit coalition that includes parents, children’s advocates, schools, teachers, clergy, labor unions and business leaders—gives Gov. George E. Pataki’s proposed 2003-04 education budget a resounding “F.”

In a report released on March 19, titled “Separate and Unequal: Pataki’s Budget Cuts Hit Struggling Schools the Hardest,” AQE charges that Pataki’s proposed $1.24 billion reduction in education spending will place an undue burden on schools that are already struggling—specifically, on those 485 schools in New York that have been designated as “in need of improvement” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (meaning they do not meet standards as measured by state tests and do not make adequate yearly progress to conform to those standards.) Albany County has four NCLB schools.

According to the AQE report, the 65 New York school districts that contain at least one NCLB school are already spending approximately $2,000 less per child than other districts. Under Pataki’s plan, the disparity in state aid would increase even more—up to 45 percent more—in these NCLB districts. Programs that would be categorically slashed under the proposed budget—such as early-grade class-size reduction, universal pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten—have proven track records of raising student achievement further down the road. Teacher layoffs under the proposed budget would further cripple already struggling school districts.

Regina Eaton, AQE executive director, notes that the proposed cuts will go beyond affecting schools that are currently experiencing financial and academic difficulties. “In addition to schools that are already struggling, the cuts will add more schools to that list,” she says. “Some schools are barely hanging in there now, and they will be devastated. . . . The sad thing is that early-education programs, like pre-kindergarten, were put in districts that were struggling first, with the thought that the earlier you teach kids how to learn, the better chance they’ll have at learning,” she says.

Eaton is cautiously optimistic that the Legislature will, in the coming days, step in to override Pataki’s education cuts. “New York City is looking at laying off 2,000 to 4,000 teachers, which is huge,” she points out. “And in smaller cities, such as Yonkers, the high percentage of teacher layoffs will be, to use a term of Pataki’s, ‘community killing.’”

—Marsha Barber


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