The Environmental Protection Agency is moving to take legal action against 22 electric utilities for violating the Clean Air Act and has referred 14 cases to the Justice Department, agency officials said yesterday.

Justice Department officials are considering whether to file lawsuits in the 14 cases, and eight more cases are in the pipeline, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing the cases.

Environmental groups charge that the EPA has not aggressively prosecuted power plants that violate its New Source Review rule, which requires companies to install new pollution controls when they modernize the plants.

The Bush administration has proposed to change the rule so that companies would have to install controls only if modifications cost 20 percent or more of the total value of a plant, though a court blocked the change in December. The EPA has also given utilities more flexibility in how they calculate the baseline from which they determine whether they are increasing polluting emissions.

The Bush administration has filed six cases over alleged New Source Review violations and settled six, said Blain Rethmeier, spokesman for Thomas L. Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources. In a settlement last year, Dominion Resources Inc. in Richmond agreed to spend $1 billion on updating its plants, pay a $5.3 million penalty and spend $13.9 million on supplemental environmental projects.

The Clinton administration filed nine cases from 1999 to 2001 and settled one. One case was settled after Bush took office.

The 22 utilities on EPA's pending list include Southern Company and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., according to an internal document obtained by Greenwire, an environmental newsletter that reported the story yesterday afternoon.

Critics have accused the administration of going easy on polluters, particularly older coal-fired power plants. S. William Becker, who heads a national association of state and local air pollution officials, said that Bush administration officials have carved out "huge loopholes for industry," and that the backlog of cases underscored this point.

"As troubling as it is that there's such widespread non-compliance by utilities, the federal government's failure to swiftly enforce Clean Air laws is even more disturbing," Becker said. "With over 150 million people breathing unhealthy air, this nation doesn't have the luxury to tolerate such disregard for environmental protection."

Industry representatives said EPA should move ahead with its proposed changes to the regulations rather than focus on prosecutions.

Jeffrey Marks, director of air quality at the National Association of Manufacturers, said: "Instead of filing lawsuits and further delaying air emission reductions, EPA, state attorneys general and environmental groups should embrace the fact that the environment has improved markedly during the past three decades while the population grew, our economy expanded, energy consumption increased and annual vehicle miles driven more than tripled."