I Can See Clearly Now, the Toxic Smoke Has Gone

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It took 29 years, but darn it, the Clean Air Act is finally being enforced. This came as some surprise to seven huge electric companies, all of which were slapped with lawsuits Wednesday. The Environmental Protection Agency charges that the companies defied landmark anti-pollution regulations at their 32 coal-burning plants. The Clean Air Act of 1970 allowed existing plants to continue production without undergoing the costly modernization process required to bring them up to speed with new regulations. Companies were permitted to perform only routine maintenance at the plants, and if any major renovations were undertaken, the plants had to be modernized to meet federal standards. The seven companies under fire decided to dodge these guidelines by claiming multimillion-dollar upgrades were routine maintenance, according to EPA administrator Carol Browner. The government is demanding speedy upgrades in all the offending plants and is looking to levy millions of dollars in fines.

The companies are feigning surprise, but to many, the lawsuits were long overdue. "The EPA has been dealing with a long list of languished initiatives that were forgotten during the environmentally lax Republican administrations," says TIME environment editor Charles Alexander. The EPA came on very aggressively under Clinton, says Alexander, and Browner has been particularly effective. And it's not just these seven companies who are taking note of the change in the political weather. "Business is paying more attention to environmental laws these days," adds Alexander. "And these lawsuits will definitely bolster the Clinton administration's image as being tough on environmental hazards."