WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration might add to air pollution by making it easier for thousands of aging factories and plants to modernize, scientists say.
A report yesterday from the National Academy of Sciences casts doubt on federal attempts to help power plants, refineries, manufacturers, and other industrial facilities comply with a 29-year-old Clean Air Act program known as ``new source review."
The scientists' review says the administration's changes to the program would probably add pollution from nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, though they acknowledge ``substantial uncertainty" about how much pollution there would be and where it would turn up.
The Clean Air Act program requires businesses to use the most effective anti pollution controls. Opponents and proponents have long agreed that it comes with too much red tape.
Some of the administration's changes to that program are under review by the Supreme Court, which was due to receive legal briefs on the matter yesterday.
Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides are two of the main chemicals targeted by the review program. They add to smog, acid rain, and fine particles that lodge in people's lungs and cause thousands of premature deaths, asthma, and other respiratory ailments a year.
The academy, which advises the government on scientific and technological issues, also implicitly criticized the Environmental Protection Agency's information gathering, saying ``a lack of data and the limitations of current models" prevent anyone from drawing firm conclusions about how the rules might affect air pollution.
Bill Harnett, an EPA division director in its air office, said, however, that the National Academy of Sciences overlooked some data EPA had from questionnaires it sent five years ago to automakers, pharmaceutical companies, computer chip makers, and other industrial facilities.
Others said they were disturbed by the scientists' conclusions.
Vickie Patton, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, said the study shows that the EPA failed to evaluate the health and environmental effects of its rule-making. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, called on the EPA to quit ``being reckless with public health" and to take no further action until it can show that its rule-making would not harm public health.
The EPA took a different view, after spending $1 million to sponsor the academy's study because of a request from Congress.
Bill Wehrum, EPA's acting chief of its Office of Air and Radiation, said the agency acted in the best interests of public health and the environment.
He said the study confirms the administration's view that more companies should be allowed to buy and sell pollution rights.
That approach, promoted in the EPA's Clean Air Interstate Rule, allows plants that don't meet their required reductions to pay plants that cut more pollution than is required. But the rule doesn't take full effect until 2015 .
Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, representing power companies, agreed with the EPA and called the study ``unqualified good news."
Bill Becker, executive director of associations representing state and local air-pollution control officials, said, however, that the rule ``is only a utility program, only covers Eastern states, is limited in what pollutants it covers, and has emissions limits less stringent than new source review."
Starting in 1999, President Clinton used the clean air program to sue owners of 51 coal-burning power plants. The Bush administration continued those cases, but rewrote the rules.
Some of the administration's 2002 changes were struck down by a federal court last year; the rest went into effect only in a few states. The 2003 revisions, affecting replaced equipment, was struck down by a court two years ago.
One case, involving