June 14th, 2012
07:15 AM ET
Lines are being drawn on Capitol Hill over an EPA rule to reduce air pollution from the nation's power plants.
Last year the Environmental Protection Agency approved the controversial Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (or MATS; also known as MACT), the country's first national protections rule designed to limit the amount of heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and other toxic air pollutants released by power plants that burn coal and oil - toxins many suspect cause cancer and other health problems.
The new standards set work practices that include an annual performance test program for new and existing electric generating units. This would include an inspection, adjustments, maintenance and repairs.
"Utility MACT is specifically designed to kill coal as well as all the good paying jobs that come with it," Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) said on the Senate floor Tuesday. "The vote on my resolution will likely be the one and only opportunity to stop President Obama's war on coal - this is the one chance for my colleagues to show their constituents who they really stand with."
The legislation can be discharged from committee and sent straight to the Senate floor for a vote. But that's not all. If passed, under CRA, the EPA would be prohibited from adopting substantially similar clean air standards in the future.
And that's what worries John Walke, Clean Air Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Walke says the whole process has been shrouded in secrecy, that Inhofe has refused to name the 29 senators - whom Walke calls the "Dirty 30" - supporting his petition. Concerned, Walke sent a letter to Inhofe asking him to disclose their names and calling for transparency and openness.
"The EPA has issued generationally important health safe guards that will save tens of thousands of lives and avoid hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks by reducing toxic air pollution from power plants that burn coal and oil," Walke said. "Those safeguards are over a decade overdue already yet they are facing fierce political attack from conservatives in congress that are trying to eliminate those safeguards and delay any weaker replacements indefinitely."
"The Senate will vote in the next 2 weeks on a bill by Sen. Inhofe that will go even further by not only nullifying these health safeguards but also prohibiting EPA from adopting any similar safeguards to reduce this dangerous air pollution. This legislative weapon is the nuclear weapon of congress with the radioactive spillover effect that poisons the landscape for officials trying to follow the law to protect the American people."
But Matt Dempsey, Communications Director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and a member of Inhofe's staff told CNN the senator's bill has widespread bipartisan support. "We've got well over 30 Senators in this body that are committed to ending President Obama's war on coal. We have support from republicans, democrats, business groups and labor units from all across the country," he said. "Senator Inhofe was clear in his speech while the NRDC is using scare tactics, this resolution would allow the EPA to go back to the drawing board and write a regulation that balances environment needs with a growing economy."
The American Lung Association is critical of Inhofe's strategy.
"We strongly oppose Senator Inhofe's extreme resolution that would permanently block EPA's life saving mercy and air toxic standards," said Paul Billings, vice president \with the American Lung Association. "The Clean Air Act required EPA address toxic air pollution from power plants in 1990. It has taken over 20 years to get to this point where power plants must clean up this pollution. These standards will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths each year and protect millions from the consequences of toxic air pollution including mercury which damages children's neurological development and intelligence."
According to the EPA, power plants are the biggest source of toxic releases into the air, including 50% of mercury emissions and 77% of acid gas emissions. When that mercury reaches water it changes into a highly toxic form of methylmercury. This can build up in fish, and people are exposed by eating that contaminated fish. The agency says exposure to methylmercury is dangerous for pregnant women, unborn babies and young children.
Existing plants will have 4 years to comply with MATS. The EPA estimates about 1,400 units will be affected - 1,100 coal-fired units and 300 oil fired units at approximately 600 power plants. They say many of these plants already meet some part of the standards.
But many in the industry share Inhofe's concerns about MATS and support his efforts to repeal the rule.
"The MATS rule and the very short timelines associated with compliance will force the premature retirement of many coal-fueled generating facilities and potentially jeopardize electricity reliability," said Melissa McHenry, a senior manager at American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio. "The MATS rule would result in dramatic and irreversible changes to the nation’s electric sector leading to higher electricity costs, killing jobs and creating a ripple effect through the American economy."
Offering an alternative to the Inhofe resolution, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Mark Pryor (D-AR) are expected to unveil a bill that would keep MACT intact, but extend the effect date out six years from 2015 to 2018. For Alexander, the issue is personal.
"This rule requires utilities in other states to install the same pollution controls that TVA already is installing on its coal-fired power plants. TVA alone can't clean up our air," Alexander said. "Tennessee is bordered by more states than any other state. We are surrounded by our neighbors' smokestacks."
But Inhofe says the Alexander-Pryor bill is just a "cover vote" and will likely never actually be voted on.
"The senators who want to kill coal by opposing SRJ 37 will put their names on the Alexander-Pryor bill as cosponsors to make it look like they are saving coal when in reality this bill kills coal but just puts if off for six years. The time is now to put a stop on Obama's war on coal."
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