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The Environmental Protection Agency has done its part with a smog-cutting plan that finally will protect New York and other northeastern states from the pollution spewed with impunity by power plants in the Midwest.

Now it likely will be up to the courts to do their part. They will have to reject the expected efforts by states and utilities there to escape responsibility for the poisons they put into the air -- poisons that end up here thanks to winds that blow from the west. The screams from Midwest utilities were quick and loud, as they lamented that they'll have to pay billions to install cleaner technology and that brownouts will occur during the replacement process.

But the protests were as hollow as they were predictable. Had they done their part sooner to solve a serious problem that has long been obvious, instead of stalling at every turn, they wouldn't be faced with the big cost of replacing out-dated equipment now.

As it is, their refusal to make those upgrades has long given them a competitive advantage over facilities in states like New York that mandated cleaner technology years ago. Even with aggressive efforts here, the beneficial impact was limited as long as there was no way to stop dirty air from the Midwest from flowing this way and making New Yorkers sick.

That meant states in the Northeast faced the double whammy of both higher costs and dirtier air.

The EPA plan will rectify that by leveling the competitive playing field while also cleaning the air that New Yorkers have to breathe. It mandates an overall 28 percent reduction in smog produced by 22 states east of the Mississippi by May 2003. That's a slight relaxation of its original proposal, but significant nevertheless.

States that have lagged the furthest in installing cleaner technology will face the biggest challenges, with some having to cut emissions by up to 51 percent.

On the other hand, utilities in New York -- a state already well along in the process -- face only a 6 percent reduction, which spokesmen for Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. say can be met relatively easily.

The EPA calculates that the mandates will cost industry $1.7 billion a year. But they're projected to save $3.4 billion through such benefits as reduced health-care spending on ailments like bronchitis and childhood asthma. That means that not only will New York residents be healthier, there will be a net economic gain to society in the bargain.

New York and the other states that stand to benefit must make sure that the EPA doesn't back off from this plan, and that courts don't buy the arguments of utilities that seek to create a right to pollute.

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