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Breathing clean air comes in second in Congress


Even in these politically polarized times, one might think that breathing clean air could muster some bipartisan support in Congress. A quick look at the bills the House of Representatives has been passing lately should dispel that naïve notion.

Three bills aimed at delaying new air pollution rules on coal-fired power plants, cement kilns and industrial boilers have passed the House in the last two months, and Senate versions are in the works. Taken together, they would allow industry to continue belching outdated levels of mercury and other pollutants at a major cost to public health.

In late September, the House passed the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation (TRAIN) Act, which would look into creating a committee to study the economic costs of new rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. House Republicans tacked on amendments that would further flatten pollution rules. One addition, courtesy of Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky -- whose election campaign, according to Open Secrets.org, was heavily bolstered by electric utilities -- would suspend the EPA's recent Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which regulates border-crossing pollution from power plants.

The EPA reports that the cross-state pollution rule would prevent 13,000 to 34,000 deaths per year and save $120 billion to $280 billion in annual health and environmental benefits.

The measure would also delay the air toxics rule requiring power plants to use the "maximum achievable control technology" (MACT) to reduce pollution, and would push back industry compliance for five years. The rule has already languished for two decades; further delays let power plants continue emitting outdated levels of hazardous pollutants like mercury, ozone and particulates. The EPA reports the air toxics rule would save up to 17,000 lives per year.

Another amendment, this one from Republican Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio, whose election campaign was also well financed by utilities, would have the agency consider the economic costs of ambient air quality standards. Currently, the EPA may only consider public health when making rules.

The anti-regulatory sentiments of the House have filtered down 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.

Senate Democrats are lined up to derail the House effort. California Democrat Barbara Boxer said in a September press conference that the House Republicans were "fighting for polluters and not for the people they represent. And we're here to call them out on it." A bipartisan Senate bill introduced Wednesday would delay the pollution rules while Republican Sen. Rand Paul from Kentucky introduced a resolution to outright overturn the cross-state rule.

In October, the House passed another attack on the EPA in the Cement Sector Regulatory Relief Act, which would likewise delay overdue MACT standards for cement kilns -- the second-highest source of mercury emissions after coal-fired power plants. Republicans say that 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 House Democrats -- including one that simply noted that mercury emissions from cement kilns can cause infant brain defects -- the "cement-sector regulatory relief" act passed 257 to 165, with 19 Democrats joining the nearly unanimous Republican front. The same vote passed another anti-health "regulatory relief" act aimed at delaying air pollution rules for industrial boilers and incinerators.

Of course, pushing these bills through the Democrat-controlled Senate won't be easy, and even if they make it, President Obama will likely veto them. But House Republicans might then seek to attach their EPA-weakening bills to a harder-to-kill omnibus bill.

In their zeal to allow industry an unfettered right to pollute, however, anti-EPA representatives in Congress might be overreaching. A new poll by Ceres, a nonprofit environmental coalition, shows that 88 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans surveyed oppose efforts to stop EPA pollution rules from taking effect on power plants. And while critics of stiffer regulations decry the economic costs and job-killing effects of the rules, they're selective about which costs count. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that the air-toxics rule on power plants could create up to 158,000 jobs by 2015, even after counting jobs lost due to higher electricity rates.

"The fear of not having clean air is a clear-cut issue according to the voting public," said Geoff Garin of Hart Research Associates, which helped conduct the poll. Voters, he added, also "firmly believe EPA should be allowed to do its job without interference from Congress."

Nathan Rice is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of
High Country News (hcn.org), where he is an editorial fellow.