(Photo courtesy of First Energy Corp.)

Senate Republicans are struggling to find common ground with their Democratic counterparts to push ahead on a White House-backed bill to trim powerplant emissions. But the continued uncertainty over that legislation doesn’t appear to be hampering design and construction firms that upgrade existing plants or build new ones. One reason: the Environmental Protection Agency is set to unveil two separate final rules in mid-March to regulate mercury and require reduced emissions of other pollutants from facilities in 29 eastern states.

"We haven’t changed any of our retrofit or construction plans," says Melissa McHenry, a spokeswoman for American Electric Power, Columbus, Ohio. Christy Zeltner, manager of market research for Black & Veatch Corp., Overland Park, Kan., says, "We don’t foresee our clients slowing down any in installing pollution-control equipment."

In fact, Black & Veatch has "seen an uptick over the last quarter of utilities deciding to go forward," says Zeltner. Utilities "want some degree of comfort and certainty with the EPA [rules] regardless of what Congress does," she says.

"Surprisingly, for the first time in 30 years we actually have a sellers’ market," says Bob McIlvaine, a Northfield, Ill., pollution-control consultant. Many contractors are not even bidding highly competitive projects, McIlvaine says. "They have enough work."

Several subcontractors that fabricate big scrubber vessels report they are booked through 2005, McIlvaine claims. EPA’s Clean Air Interstate Rule, expected March 15, will require such equipment.

Nevertheless, industry officials are keeping an eye on Congress to see if Clean Air legislation starts to advance. At present, the center of attention is President Bush’s "Clear Skies" plan, which would cut emissions of three pollutants 70% by 2018. That proposal would reduce overall emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury, using predetermined caps and trading allowances. The bill’s first phase requirements now call for removing 2.19 million tons of nitrogen oxide by 2008, 4.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide by 2010 and 34 tons of mercury by 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service.

That measure is mired in the Senate. On Feb. 16, GOP leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee delayed a scheduled vote on the Clear Skies bill when they realized they lacked support on the panel. A key sticking point for opponents is that it doesn’t require any cut in carbon dioxide emissions. Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) will try again on March 2.

TEA-21: Rove, Mineta Say Limit

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta have told industry and labor groups that $284 billion is the administration’s ceiling for a highway and transit bill, sources say. At a Feb. 17 Eisenhower Executive Office Building meeting, the officials said they wanted a bill to pass soon, so a construction season isn’t lost, attendees said. One participant beieves it was the first time a top official had said President Bush himself wants to get the bill done.

About 10 groups were represented, including the American Council of Engineering Companies, American Highway Users Alliance, American Public Transportation Association, Associated General Contractors and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sources say.

Homeland Security: IG Sees Flaws in Port Grant Program

The Dept. of Homeland Security port grant program hasn’t measured up to its goal, says a DHS inspector general’s report. Only 21% of the $515 million awarded through 2003 was spent by last Sept. 30, says the study, released Feb. 16. Many projects got aid "despite dubious scores by its evaluators against key criteria," it says, adding that "the program has not yet achieved its intended results in the form of actual improvement to port security."

The study says the program’s current design compromises its ability to direct resources to the most important needs, but a DHS official disputes that claim. Anna F. Dixon, a director in the DHS chief financial officer’s unit, also says DHS is working to "ensure that funds are allocated to the highest port security priorities."

Power: Ex-Im Bank Backs U.S. Nuclear Plants in China

The Export-Import Bank of the United States has signaled interest in a bid by Westinghouse Electric Co., Monroeville, Pa., to construct four nuclear powerplants in China.

If Westinghouse wins a historic contract from the Chinese government late this year, and if the bank grants final approval to its Feb. 18 preliminary pledge of $5 billion in loans to build the plants, it will be the largest transaction in Ex-Im history. The record is $1.7 billion.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski and Sherie Winston