It seems that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might have devised a new set of government regulations unlike any other.
They might just boost the economy of New York State rather than hurt it.
The rules in question are tough new standards on smog and soot that were finalized Friday. The rules, which will take several years and several billion dollars to implement, aim to protect asthmatics and other Americans with respiratory problems who are still breathing in pollutants nearly 30 years after Congress passed the first Clean Air Act.
The rules are hugely controversial just about everywhere except New York, which is already home to tough clean-air laws that, in effect, duplicate the new federal standards. This means that if the federal rules survive an expected onslaught in the courts and in Congress, New York stands to reap some benefits without bearing huge costs.
Clouds of pollution floating in from out of state should become increasingly rare. Just as important, utility rates in the Midwest are expected to rise as power plants there clean up their act as those in New York already have. If that happens, the high cost of electricity in New York State will be less likely to drive businesses away.
"We're hopeful that it will level the playing field in a lot of ways," said Jim Austin, director of special projects for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
For that reason, even some New York utilities are supporting the new rules.
"Look, we in New York State have been doing things with an environmental conscience, and our customers have paid for it through their electric rates," said Nicholas J. Lyman, a spokesman for Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. "Those other states are exporting their dirty air into our state, and that's not real fair."
Indeed, New Yorkers have paid for cleaner air. Austin said the wholesale price of electricity in upstate New York is 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour -- more than double the rate in most Midwestern states.
Energy costs in New York increased dramatically thanks to a 1984 state law that put stringent new controls on sulfur dioxide, the main component in acid rain. Utilities across the state had to install expensive new equipment to comply with that law, and that same equipment also helps to cut down on smog and soot emissions.
Now, utilities in other states will have to install the same sort of equipment, and plenty of people in New York say it's about time.
"For too long, other regions of the country have been allowed to pollute the air we breathe," Gov. Pataki said in a statement. "In addition, New York's industries and power companies faced a growing disadvantage because their competitors in other states were held to lower standards."
Without the new clean-air rules, New York would face an even bigger problem if Congress goes through with its planned deregulation of the utility industry, which would allow power companies to sell electricity across state lines.
"Our big concern is that deregulation will allow the Midwestern utilities to expand their output dramatically and even reopen some of the dirty old plants they've shut down," said John F. Sheen, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, an Albany environmental group. "That would vastly increase the amount of pollution in New York State."
There's a vast difference between the amount of pollution that escapes from a modernized electricity generating plant, such as Niagara Mohawk's facilities in the Town of Tonawanda and Dunkirk, and the antiquated coal-burning plants of other states.
In 1995, for example, Ohio power plants emitted 1.2 million tons of sulfur dioxide -- more than four times as much as New York's plants did. Because plants in Pennsylvania, Indiana and many other downwind states are just as bad as those in Ohio, Sheehan said, 93 percent of the state's acid rain problem comes from out of state.
Despite the pollution blowing in from elsewhere, the EPA said, most of upstate -- including Erie County -- meets the current federal smog standard and will have no problem meeting the more stringent requirements for smog or soot.
Based on data for 1993 through 1995, Niagara County would just barely violate the new smog standard, but neither the EPA nor the local representative in Congress expects that to be a problem.
An EPA spokesman in New York, Mary Mears, noted that air quality has been improving in the state thanks to new technology in cars and factories and that continuing improvement alone should be enough to put Niagara County into compliance. A spokesman for Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, agreed and said LaFalce strongly supports the new standards.
"Credible experts have told us that enactment of EPA's proposals could prevent 15,000 premature deaths each year and more than a million cases of illness," LaFalce and several of his colleagues said in a letter to President Clinton regarding the issue. "Serious public-health threats may result if these standards are delayed or weakened."
Improving the public health is the sole motivation behind the new standards, EPA administrator Carol M. Browner said in a meeting with regional reporters last week.
"We're talking about helping people live longer," said Ms. Browner, who won a brutal battle within the Clinton administration about whether the president should support the standards.
Nevertheless, even some businesses in New York are worried, said Ken Pokalsky, director of environmental programs at the Business Council of New York State. That concern is centered downstate, which already routinely violates the current ozone standard.
Pokalsky said that if the new controls on out-of-state industry don't do enough to cut New York's pollution, it's possible that even tougher rules will have to be imposed on the state's businesses. The state might even have to put controls on building construction and the use of consumer products.
That what-if scenario has prompted industry to spin stories of Uncle Sam shutting down the nation's barbecue grills to meet the clean-air standards. Ms. Browner dismisses such talk as hot air.
"This is about utilities, smokestacks and combustible byproducts," she said, not grills and lawnmowers.
Yet the EPA acknowledges that the new rules will be costly. The agency puts the nationwide implementation cost at upwards of $8.5 billion a year, while industry says it could be more than twice that.
Not surprisingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suing to try to stop the regulations, and members of Congress from the industrial heartland are pushing a bill that would delay the rules for several years.
"What these rules say is: Let's shut down industry all over the country," said the bill's author, Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa. "That way, nobody will have jobs, but we'll have clean air. That's really what we're talking about."
Environmentalists say such rhetoric is ridiculous and dismiss Klink's contention that his bill would pass by a vetoproof margin. For one thing, they note, many in Congress, such as Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg, have not yet taken a stand on the new pollution rules.
What's more, the American people don't really know about them yet, either, said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, a Utica Republican who plans to fight to preserve the rules in Congress.
"The American people will judge the standards to be fair and realistic," Boehlert said. "They want cleaner air now, tomorrow and into the next century."