WASHINGTON -- The government agreed yesterday to decide by this summer whether it should force coal-fired power plants in 13 Eastern states to reduce unhealthy air pollution that also is blamed for obscuring views of the Smoky Mountains.
North Carolina's attorney general, Roy Cooper, asked the Environmental Protection Agency last March to find that pollution coming from outside North Carolina was preventing the state from meeting federal health-based standards for smog and soot in metropolitan areas.
The EPA missed the November deadline for replying. But it reached a settlement with Cooper and the New York-based Environmental Defense group both filed notice of potential legal action against the EPA.
That proposed settlement was filed yesterday in US District Court in Raleigh, N.C.
The state and the environmental group contend that pollution from the out-of-state plants is affecting North Carolina by harming people's health, damaging farmers' crops, and detracting from mountain views that are part of its $12.6 billion-a-year tourist industry.
''This is a win for all of us who want to stop these out-of-state polluters from damaging the air we breathe," Cooper said. ''North Carolina is working hard to clean up our own air, but those efforts alone won't stop the dirty air we inherit from other states."
The court must approve the proposed timetable, under which the EPA would make a preliminary decision on the petition by August and a final ruling by March 2006.
If the EPA agrees with North Carolina, coal-burning power plants upwind would have three years to cut pollution in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
But an agency spokeswoman, Cynthia Bergman, said ''it's an absolute certainty" that the case will drag on for years because some party probably will challenge the EPA's decision.
Michael Shore, a senior policy analyst for Environmental Defense in Asheville, N.C., said the settlement puts pressure on the EPA to fulfill its promise to issue a rule next month to achieve many of the suit's goals.
That rule would order pollution cuts from power plants in 29 Eastern states.