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Clear air bill compromise may come soon

Congressional negotiators reached a tentative agreement Sunday on the last major section of clean air legislation, setting the stage for the bill's final approval. Agreement on cutting about 10-million tons of sulfur dioxide annually by electric utilities came after House and Senate staff members met until nearly dawn to work out a compromise. The measure, designed to limit acid rain, will hit the hardest in the industrial Midwest.

The massive 700-page clean air bill, the first revision of federal air pollution laws in 13 years, is aimed at dramatically curtailing urban smog, toxic chemical releases from factories and businesses and pollution from coal-burning electric power plants.

Its cost to the economy has been estimated at between $21-billion and $25-billion a year if all requirements were in place.

Working under a deadline to finish the bill over the weekend, the discussions behind closed doors turned to a handful of remaining issues later Sunday.

The two most controversial were whether to provide assistance to people who lose jobs because of the tougher pollution controls and whether to impose new pollution requirements to ensure clean air over federal parks such as the Grand Canyon.

Congressional sources involved in the bargaining predicted agreement on the remaining issues, although perhaps not until today. Several participants expressed hope that a completed bill could be formally approved by members of the Senate-House conference committee in time for final passage before Congress' expected adjournment Friday.

The tentative compromise on acid rain retains the general pollution control requirements on more than 100 coal-burning electric power plants approved by both the House and Senate earlier this year.

Annual emissions of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, must be cut by nearly 10-million tons, or roughly in half, by the year 2001. The compromise also calls for cutting nitrogen oxides, also a precursor of acid rain, by as much as 4-million tons, more than in earlier legislation.

"We're getting real protection. It meets the acid test on acid rain," said Rep. Gerry Sikorski, D-Minn., a leading proponent of acid rain curbs.

In final bargaining, Midwest lawmakers gained some additional credits, easing the cost of installing new pollution controls at some of the dirtiest power plants, especially over the first five years.

However, negotiators rejected efforts by the utility industry to substantially roll back the sulfur dioxide reductions, according to congressional sources.

Congressional negotiators have been working to craft a final clean air bill since July 13 after somewhat different versions were overwhelmingly approved by the House and Senate earlier in the year. Federal clean air laws have not been revised since 1977.

A breakthrough came Oct. 10 when a tentative accord was reached on controlling motor vehicle emissions to help reduce urban smog.

Legislation's acid-rain provisions

Here is a summary of the acid rain provisions tentatively agreed to by House-Senate negotiators in clean air legislation that is moving toward final approval.

The bill requires electric utilities to reduce annual sulfur dioxide emissions by 10-million tons in two stages by the year 2000 and caps emissions after that. Releases of nitrogen oxides, also a precursor of acid rain, are cut as well.

Utilities are allowed to buy and sell "pollution credits" to reduce the cost of emission controls at dirty plants. Utilities that already operate clean plants can use credits for emissions in new plants to allow for growth.