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Southern Co. could benefit from EPA rule change

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The lawsuit that the federal Department of Justice filed against the Southern Co. that could force the company to pony up as much as $1 billion to clean up its coal-burning power plants is in jeopardy.

According to the Wall Street Journal and the environmental newsletters Air Daily and Oil Daily, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency soon will announce changes in the way it enforces clean air laws. Those changes could lead the Department of Justice to drop its lawsuit against Southern Co.

A spokesman in EPA's Atlanta office said he didn't know anything about the proposed changes.

On Nov. 3, 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice filed lawsuits against eight utility companies that operate 32 older, coal-burning power plants.

One of those suits says Southern Co. spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve productivity at 10 plants, but never upgraded pollution controls at those plants.

Three other power companies settled their lawsuits with the Justice Department, each for more than $1 billion that will be spent on pollution controls aimed at reducing emissions by more than 750,000 tons each year between them.

If Southern Co. was forced to upgrade its plants, the company could reduce its sulfur dioxide (a greenhouse gas) output by 892,000 tons and its nitrogen dioxide (a key component of ozone) emissions by 242,000 tons, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The crux of the lawsuits revolves around an technical term called routine maintenance. Power companies, including Southern, say that the improvements they made at their plants were routine maintenance and therefore didn't require further pollution control upgrades. The Justice Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say the work done at the plants was more than routine maintenance and does require pollution upgrades.

Here's where things get really tricky. Along the way, just about every other energy provider in the country pumped record amounts of soft money and political action committee contributions into federal candidates.

Southern Co., its subsidiaries and employees gave $1.4 million, more than anyone else during the 1999-2000 election cycle.

Southern Co. also paid $220,000 for the lobbying services of former national GOP chairman Haley Barbour, who's been involved in the discussions on the EPA's definition of routine maintenance since June.

Lo and behold, as part of its national energy policy, the Bush/Cheney administration ordered the EPA to review its definition of routine maintenance. It's this review that the EPA is expected to release, possibly as early as Dec. 21.

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