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Washington, DC – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is giving an unprecedented exemption from meeting Clean Air Act requirements to the metropolitan area of Chicago, despite the fact that Chicago is already in violation of air quality standards. EPA is invoking a never before used provision of the Clean Air Act to relax pollution controls by declaring Chicago an “economic development zone.”

Under the EPA plan, new factories and other stationary sources of pollution locating within the Chicago metropolitan area would not have to provide offsetting reductions as they now must in all non-attainment areas. EPA announced the plan on August 25 with an unusually short two-week public comment period.

The plan is the fruit of negotiations among EPA Administrator Carol Browner, Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago and industry representatives, principally Atlantic Steel. EPA observers estimate that approximately 50 large factories will benefit from the elimination of offset requirements and potential legal challenges from affected neighborhoods under the plan which would begin this December and stay in effect until 2008.

EPA claims the plan will ultimately produce pollution reductions but leaves details as to how that might be accomplished to a future plan to be developed by the state of Illinois. The plan also introduces new regulatory concepts such as an emission “growth allowance” and pollution “surplus” without definition.

“Something is mighty fishy for the Clinton-Gore Administration in these boom times to declare a special need in Chicago to put jobs ahead of public health,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. PEER was contacted by EPA employees who were concerned that the plan was inappropriate but was being politically bulldozed through the agency. “This smacks of a sweetheart deal in which the nation’s main clean air enforcement tool is put away in return for a promise by Illinois to produce future reductions from unspecified sources.”

The Chicago metropolitan area, with more than 9 million people in 294 municipalities covering all or parts of eight counties, is, like many urban areas such as Houston or Los Angeles, out of compliance with federally mandated clean air targets. Ironically, EPA regularly cites the disproportionate health effects of bad air quality in urban poor and minority neighborhoods, the very neighborhoods that will likely be the locations of new pollution sources in the Chicago “development zones.”

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