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U.S. House attacks Clean Air Act


Even in these politically polarized times, one might be forgiven for presuming that breathing clean air could muster bipartisan support in Congress. But a quick look at what the House of Representatives has been up to roundly dispels such a quixotic notion. Two bills aimed at delaying new air pollution rules on cement kilns and coal-fired power plants have already passed the House; another bill poised to pass would let industrial boilers off the hook for similar rules. Taken together, the bills would allow industry to continue belching out less protective levels of mercury and other pollutants at a major cost to public health. Lest the rule-slashing be limited to air pollution, yet another bill would preclude upcoming regulations to protect groundwater from toxic coal ash. Indeed, the Republican-run chamber has been living up to its reputation as "the most anti-environment House of Representatives in history," as Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, put it.

Last month, the House passed the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act, which sought to study the economic costs of new EPA rules. House Republicans further flattened pollution rules by tacking on a few more consequential amendments. One, courtesy of Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-KY, (whose campaign was heavily bolstered by electric utilities) would suspend for at least 15 months the EPA's recent Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which regulates border-crossing power plant pollution. The measure would also delay a new rule requiring power plants to use the "maximum achievable control technology" (MACT) to reduce pollution. The delays let power plants continue emitting outdated levels of dangerous pollutants like mercury, ozone and particulates. Another amendment from Rep. Bob Latta, R-OH, would have EPA consider the economic costs of ambient air quality standards (currently, the agency may only consider public health when making rules). The sentiments of the House have filtered to the states, too: 25 states including Alaska, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, asked a federal court to delay the same utility MACT standards for a year, citing impending spikes in electricity rates.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are lined up to derail the TRAIN Act. Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-CA, said that House Republicans were "fighting for polluters and not for the people they represent. And we're here to call them out on it." EPA reports that the cross-state pollution rule would prevent 13,000 to 34,000 deaths per year and save $120 to $280 billion in annual health and environmental benefits.

Last Thursday, the House passed its next attack on the EPA in the Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act, which would likewise delay MACT standards for cement kilns -- the second highest source of mercury emissions behind coal-fired power plants. Ironically, it was only last year that EPA first set emissions standards for cement plants under the Clean Air Act, after two decades of wrangling over the rule. High Country News contributor Jeremy Miller wrote about the nation's most mercury-polluting cement plant in Durkee, Ore., in last year's "Mountains of mercury," noting that, "Since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the nation's cement plants have functioned in a regulatory blind spot."

Republicans claim the cement rule threatens to shutter 20 percent of U.S. cement plants in the next two years, killing thousands of jobs. After refusing all 16 amendments offered by Democrats -- including one that would have simply noted that mercury emissions cause infant brain defects -- the act passed 262 to 161, with only two Republicans voting no.

Next on the House's anti-health wish list is the EPA Regulatory Relief Act, aimed at delaying air pollution rules for industrial boilers and incinerators for 15 months and pushing back the industry compliance deadline to at least 2018. And last but not least is the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act, which would kill EPA's attempt to start regulating toxic coal ash for the first time in the wake of the 2008 Tenessee coal ash spill. Both bills could pass the House this week.

Getting these bills through the Senate won’t be easy and even if they make it, President Obama will likely veto the TRAIN Act and the boiler and cement bills. But House Republicans won't be dissuaded. As Rep. Whitfield explained to E&E Daily, "I doubt that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid's going to voluntarily put any of them on the floor for a vote over there, so we're going to try to get some included in something that has to pass," like an omnibus bill.

This slurry of dirty bills comes as a new poll conducted by Ceres shows that 58 percent of Republicans surveyed oppose efforts to stop EPA pollution rules on power plants, suggesting that their elected counterparts could be overreaching in favor of industry.

Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research Associates, which helped conduct the poll, said, "The fear of not having clean air is a clear-cut issue according to the voting public. And, not only do voters overwhelmingly support the EPA’s clean air rules, they firmly believe EPA should be allowed to do its job without interference from Congress.”


Nathan Rice is an editorial fellow at High Country News.

Smokestack photo courtesy Flickr user nixter.

Tennessee coal ash spill photo courtesy Tennessee Valley Authority.