Tennessean: Editorial: EPA rule will make all breathe easier

Posted on June 18, 2012

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A vote in the U.S. Senate this week could determine whether our air will be safe to breathe.

Some Republicans, led by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, are pushing legislation to overturn a new Environmental Protection Agency rule that would clean up toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The EPA rule has long been needed, because without the scrubbers and filters that the rule would require plants to install in their smokestacks, Americans will continue to be subjected to high mercury emissions, which lead to serious birth defects and mental retardation in children, along with respiratory illnesses in children and adults.

With few exceptions, Tennessee Valley Authority being one of them, utilities have refused to add the scrubbers voluntarily, claiming that it’s too costly. The EPA rule, Utility MACT, would require all power plants to emit no more mercury as of 2016 than the cleanest plants do today.

Fortunately, the rule has the support of Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is working to defeat the vote to undo Utility MACT and, most importantly, developing a compromise that will make it easier for utilities to get on board.

Alexander, along with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., want to give utilities three extra years to comply with the new standard, either through presidential order or through separate legislation.

Despite this more-than-fair compromise, the coal industry has waged a campaign accusing Alexander of colluding with Obama in a “war on coal.” It’s an absurd notion with no basis in reality, and Sen. Alexander has crushed their arguments completely.

For example, it’s a fact that older coal-fired plants pollute the air at dangerous levels. It’s a fact that, even if you live in Tennessee, where TVA is aggressively working to make its coal-fired plants cleaner, you are subject to toxic emissions from diry plants in adjacent states.

Opponents to the rule say it’s bad for business, but dirty air is what is bad for business. Manufacturers are prohibited by existing law from opening new factories and creating jobs if the area’s air-quality is substandard.

The coal industry claims the standards will force them to eliminate jobs, but Alexander explains that the upgrades will save industry jobs by extending the life of its plants. And the jobs of the workers who make the scrubbers and install them on aging plants are just as important.

No, the only ones who will “suffer” under Utility MACT are the handful of utility and coal-industry executives who will have to put more money into their plants and less into their pockets.

The bottom line here is apparent: Having cheaper energy is not worth it if millions of Americans are poisoned in the process. The Tennessean strongly supports Sen. Alexander’s effort to get utilities to clean up their act.