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EPA MAY GIVE NEW YORK A BREATH OF FRESH AIR

At long last, the federal government has recognized that Midwestern states shouldn't be permitted to send their smokestack emissions into the lungs of residents in downwind states like New York.

But that doesn't mean the Environmental Protection Agency's new common-sense proposal to have states cut harmful emissions by set amounts by 2004 will get smooth sailing.

Power companies -- the largest single source of smog-causing pollution -- already are condemning it. And government officials in states that have done the least to cut harmful emissions no doubt will loudly object, citing costs to their economies.

But states like New York already have borne that cost. Albany forced coal-fired plants to install cleaner technologies in the 1980s while states in the Midwest ignored the problem. New Yorkers paid higher electric bills as a result, yet still watched their lakes die and their air get dirtier as pollutants flowed this way on westerly winds.

Now New York -- which still is seeking crackdowns even sooner than 2004 -- finally stands to reap some justice, both economically and environmentally.

The EPA proposal calls for only 19 percent reductions in New York's already low emission of smog-causing nitrogen oxides by 2004. State officials say New York can easily reach that goal because of both improvements here and the reduction of smog from other states.

Many Midwestern states, on the other hand, would have to cut emissions twice as much as New York because they ignored the problem for so long.

States would get to pick how they want to meet the new limits, and they wouldn't have to target utilities. But most are expected to, since utilities as a class are the largest polluters.

There also would be flexibility in the EPA suggestion that states let companies buy and sell pollution credits as a way of meeting a state's overall pollution cap. Putting market incentives to work in that way is seen by many as the most cost-efficient manner of getting companies -- and states -- to take responsibility for pollutants.

But despite the flexibility envisioned in the new proposal, critics will be loud and well-financed. That means states like New York must be just as active in fending off challenges to the new proposal.

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