Knoxville News Sentinel Editorial: Clean air bill discussion needed now

Posted on February 22, 2010

We thought last year was a good time for Congress to seriously consider the bill by U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Tom Carper to impose stiffer controls on emissions from coal-fired power plants.

It was, but this year might be an even better time. Legislation on climate change, of which carbon dioxide restrictions are a part, appears bottled up for now. Some believe it has only a slight chance of passage.

Instead of waiting for that measure - with its cap-and-trade provision, which Alexander does not support - the Tennessee Republican last week said Congress should move ahead with the legislation proposed by him and Carper, a Delaware Democrat.

He has a valid point.

If approved, the Alexander-Carper bill would force coal-fired power plants to reduce mercury emissions at least 90 percent by 2015. The legislation also would require power plants to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide by 80 percent by 2018 and emissions of nitrogen oxide by 53 percent by 2015.

The reductions would be accomplished through the use of equipment such as scrubbers on smokestacks and other technologies, which Alexander believes have been improved to a point where they can achieve significant reductions in the pollution caused by these three elements without burdensome costs to consumers.

"We're going to be using coal plants for the forseeable future in our country," he said, "and there's no excuse for operating coal plants without pollution-control equipment that takes care of sulfur, nitrogen and mercury emissions."

Mercury can contaminate crops and water supplies, resulting in harm to the brain and other vital organs and is especially harmful to children and pregnant women.

Also on Alexander's mind is the damage that pollution can do to natural resources, such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The senator lives in Blount County near the edge of the park.

As Alexander famously puts it, "Millions of people come to the Smokies every year to see the blue haze the Cherokees sang about, not the gray smog that power plant emissions help to create."

The emissions reductions under the Alexander-Carper legislation, which the two have been promoting since 2004, eventually could save 250,000 lives and more than $2 trillion in health care costs, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Setting tough national standards on coal-fired plants, Alexander said, will "stop dirty air from blowing into Tennessee and others states" and help those industries meet the new EPA air-quality regulations, which are moving forward.

Alexander also said the bill has "tri-partisan support," with six Democrat sponsors, five Republican backers and one Independent.

The Senate should put this bill on the fast track for discussion. Besides being needed legislation, it would give members of Congress from both sides of the aisle a sense that they can accomplish something meaningful in a session that has seen too much petty bickering and too much oliitical polarization.

This proposal deserves a fair hearing as soon as possible.