Bush's Clean Air Act revisions are one more sell-out of human healthDecimated salmon runs and depleted habitat make the Northwest's hydroelectric system a mixed blessing. But we should nevertheless be grateful when considering how the rest of nation generates electric power.

Coal- and oil-fired generators in the East and Midwest spew out tons of air pollution every minute. A study released in 2002 by ABT Associates, a for-profit research firm, found emissions from just three power firms in the vicinity of western North Carolina resulted in almost 2, 000 cases of chronic bronchitis, more than 2,000 deaths and almost half-a-million lost work days.

Even so, things used to be worse in the dreary days before passage of the federal Clean Air Act in 1977. Before then, there were few controls on emissions. Smog-filled skies became a national scandal and a subject of deep concern to public health officials. The Nixon White House and Congress were shamed into doing something about it, and resulting laws have kept an air pollution disaster at arm's length.

The dreadful pollution before 1977 developed despite vague libertarian notions that utilities would come around on their own. Then as now, lower costs and higher profits were foremost.

Utilities and their allies in government successfully watered down the Clean Air Act, essentially exempting older plants. They argued it was too expensive to retrofit them with new pollution-control devices. Instead, only as these plants were replaced or significantly expanded would clean-air measures apply. Back then, it was expected that by now most of these old plants would be long gone or fully upgraded, the costs gradually spread out over time.

But pressure to keep stock dividends high and rates below the pain threshold have kept most of the old dinosaurs plodding along, belching filth.

Now, the Bush administration - which obtained millions in campaign contributions from utility-related sources and which employs many former and future utility executives - last week said it will exempt more than 17,000 plants and refineries from parts of the Clean Air Act. Under the new ruling, an old plant can put in a new boiler without modern pollution-fighting equipment, so long as the total cost isn't more than 20 percent of the cost of replacing the whole unit.

At best, critics believe this will result in long delays before modern emission controls are installed. By upgrading power plants one-fifth at a time over a long period, it in effect may be possible to put off pollution improvements forever.

Even the non-partisan General Accounting Office weighed in on the issue this week, saying the Environmental Protection Agency based its decision on "anecdotes from the four industries it believes are most affected." Precisely like Vice President Dick Cheney's slavish emphasis on catering to Big Oil when drafting the nation's energy policy, this is another case of selling the chicken house to the foxes.

The Northwest won't be horribly affected by all this, though we should pity our friends and relations in industrial states. More urgently, this is another in a long trail of clues to this administration's deep-seated priorities. Large corporations are number one, and the well-being of average citizens is about number 364.

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