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In a post-election assault on the air we breathe, the Bush administration is changing smokestack pollution rules in ways that boost production efficiency at the expense of public health. To add insult to injury, it argues that the new relaxed rules will curtail pollution by allowing more of it.

Using Environmental Protection Agency's rule-making instead of legislation, the administration's changes clearly rank economic protection over environmental protection and cripples the Clean Air Act passed by Congress 25 years ago.

More immediately to the point for Western New Yorkers, the new rules would mean continued pollution here from dirty, coal-burning industrial sites and power plants located in other states upwind. Instead of a federal ally in his fight against that airborne pollution, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer now is likely to find himself battling the EPA as well as polluters.

The new rules are bad news, indeed, for the entire Northeast. Republican New York Gov. George Pataki, to his credit, is among those protesting the changes. So are the attorneys general of 11 Northeastern states, including Spitzer; health groups such as the American Lung Association; and both New York's Democratic senators.

The rules incorporate several troubling changes, all sought by industry groups emboldened enough, now, to complain that they don't go far enough. Instead of measuring their pollution changes against the emissions of the last two years, for example, industrial sites will be able to measure them against their dirtiest 24-month period in the last decade -- making it easier to downplay increases or claim decreases even if neighbors have been inundated by a recent surge in toxins. Pollution improvements would be mandated only if projected increases, estimated by the industry without EPA review, exceed that higher baseline by a specified amount.

Plants also will be able to claim compliance by installing equipment to control one type of pollutant, even if emissions of other types skyrocket. Pollution now will be averaged over an entire plant site, instead of considered for each piece of equipment. And plants can gain a 10-year exemption from further pollution improvements by pointing to control equipment that was state-of-the-art when it was installed as long as 15 years ago -- a "retroactive loophole" that environmental groups contend is hardly an incentive, much less acceptable given the rapid evolution of pollution technology.

Still ahead are likely expansions to the definition of "routine maintenance," which is exempt from the pollution control equipment requirements triggered by substantial improvements or plant upgrades. New rules also would exempt changes that cost less than 20 percent of the plant's total dollar value.

The administration and its supporters contend the changes will encourage older polluting plants, protectively "grandfathered" so long as no major changes were made, to make relatively small improvements they have been unable or reluctant to make under existing rules. That, EPA spokesmen said, means cleaner air. But the changes also extend the lives of older, more polluting technologies, and offer too little incentive for the major changes that could lead to much cleaner air.

Industry deserved some reform of the Clean Air Act. It needed clearer definitions, more understandable standards, more assurance that today's rules would still hold true tomorrow. Good business practices can only be based on such certainties, but this is not certainty. It's a blank check.

The Bush administration sees environmental concerns as impediments to energy production, and hopes to reduce the cost of electricity, oil and manufacturing despite probable increases in the public cost of health care and environmental degradation. That's a bad bargain, and one better avoided by more conservation and energy efficiency initiatives. The environment is under attack from this administration on a number of fronts, but this one is particularly hard to choke down.

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