The Environmental Defense Fund filed suit yesterday to force the Enironmental Protection Agency to require strict pollution controls on some 75 coal plants and industrial facilities.
The action is the first step in what could become a major conflict between environmentalists and the Carter administration over energy. President Carter has repeatedly promised that the increased use of coal called for by his energy plan will not take place at the sacrifice of strict environmental controls.
However, last October EPA exempted from the clean air act's new, strict controls any facility that obtains a permit from the agency by March 1978 and is under construction by December.
EPA assistant administrator David Hawkins said the exemption was made to avoid "disruptive effects" on facilities already in the advanced planning stages. Only three plants would be affected, he estimated at the time.
A Sierra Club survey of regional EPA offices now estimates that as many as 77 facilities - including about 40 which plan to obtain permits in the next 10 days - will escape environmental requirements under the exemption.
These include 30 large coal-fired, power plants, as well as oil storage facilities, aluminum plants, sulfur recovery plants and paper mills, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which asked the U.S. District Court here for a temporary restraining order in the exemption.
The EPA exemption applies to contorversial clean air act amendments passed last August that would require plants to install the best technology available to minimize sulfur dioxide, dust and other pollutants that cause respiratory disease.
Defense Fund attorney Robert Rauch said "utilities have been putting tremendous pressure on EPA to ram through their permits before the March deadline." The exemption, he added, represents "a serious miscalcualtion by the agency."
EPA declined to comment on the suit. A court hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday at 2 p.m.