Southern Revolving Door
by Russell Mokhiber

A week after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in late August issued a final rule gutting a key Clean Air Act provision, a high-level EPA air official decided to take a job at Southern Co., a major polluter that lobbied heavily for the rule.

John Pemberton, chief of staff to EPA's assistant administrator for air and radiation, Jeff Holmstead, will join the company as a senior executive.

"Industry bought and paid for the Bush administration's assault on our clean air protections, so it's fitting that one of the nation's biggest polluters should reward this EPA official by putting him on its payroll," says John Walke, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's (NRDC's) Clean Air Project.

"Unfortunately, it's the American people who will pay with more asthma, respiratory disease, poisoned lakes and smoggy cities."

In August, EPA announced a final rule that will effectively repeal the Clean Air Act's "new source review" provision, which requires companies to install modern pollution control technologies in new plants and in old plants when they make modifications that significantly increase pollution.

The new final rule will allow facilities to avoid installing pollution controls when they replace equipment--even if the upgrade increases pollution--as long as the cost of the replacement does not exceed 20 percent of the cost of major polluting equipment at their plants.

Southern Co. is a defendant in eight of 51 federal clean air enforcement cases prosecuting new source review violations. If the new "20 percent rule" had been in place previously, Southern Co.'s violations would have been legal.

Southern Co., which owns coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Southeast, lobbied intensively to cripple these clean air protections, enlisting the help of top Republican lobbyist Haley Barbour.

Last year, NRDC uncovered a March 2001 email from an in-house Southern Co. lobbyist requesting that Vice President Cheney's energy plan recommend significantly weakening the new source review provision. The lobbyist also urged the Bush administration to reverse its position in ongoing enforcement cases against Southern and other utility company defendants.

"This is par for the course in the shameless world of Bush administration environmental policy," says Greg Wetstone, advocacy director at NRDC. "A timber lobbyist runs the Forest Service, a mining company lobbyist is deputy secretary of interior, and EPA officials take dictation from major polluters and then brazenly cash-in."

© Multinational Monitor October 2003