The Tennessean: Op-Ed by Senator AlexanderTennessee Needs Air Rule for Jobs as Well as Health

Posted on June 13, 2012

Over the years I have learned that cleaner air means better jobs as well as better health for Tennesseans.

That’s why I will soon vote to uphold a clean air rule that 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. Tennessee is bordered by more states than any other state. We are surrounded by our neighbors’ smokestacks. If we want more Nissan and Volkswagen plants, we will have to stop dirty air from blowing into Tennessee.

The first thing Nissan did when it came to Tennessee in 1980 was to apply for an air quality permit for emissions from its paint plant. If Nashville’s air had already been too dirty to allow these emissions, Nissan would have gone to Georgia, and auto jobs wouldn’t make up one-third of Tennessee’s manufacturing jobs today.

Every one of Tennessee’s major metropolitan areas is struggling to meet standards that govern whether industries can acquire air quality permits.

I once asked Sevierville Chamber of Commerce leaders to name their top priority. The answer? Clean air. East Tennesseans know that 9 million tourists come each year to see the Great Smoky Mountains — not the Great Smoggy Mountains. They want those tourist dollars and jobs to keep coming.

We have 546 Tennesseans working in coal mining, according to the Energy Information Administration, and their jobs are important. There are also 1,200 Tennesseans who work at the Alstom plants in Knoxville and Chattanooga that will supply the country with pollution control equipment required by this rule. Their jobs are important, too.

Of the top five worst U.S. cities for asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, three are in Tennessee: Memphis, Chattanooga and Knoxville. Nashville dropped out of the top 10 only last year.

Because of high levels of mercury, health advisories warn against eating fish caught in many of Tennessee’s rivers and streams. Nationally, mercury causes brain damage in more than 315,000 children each year, according to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Half of U.S. manmade mercury comes from coal-fired power plants. The new rule requires removing 90 percent of this mercury.

While some have said this rule is anti-coal, I say that it is pro-coal, because pollution control equipment guarantees coal a future in our clean energy mix. Long-term, TVA will be able to produce at least one-third of its electricity from clean coal plants, with the rest from even cleaner natural gas and pollution-free nuclear or hydropower.

This new equipment will add a few dollars a month to residential electric bills. The EPA estimates a 3 percent increase nationwide. Because TVA already has committed to install the pollution controls, its customers will pay this with or without the rule. To reduce these costs, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and I will introduce legislation to allow six years to comply with the rule, as many utilities have requested, and we’ll urge President Obama to exercise his authority to allow six years.

Ever since Tennesseans elected me to the Senate, I have worked to clean up our air, because I know that not doing so jeopardizes our health as well as our opportunity to be one of the nation’s leading states for auto jobs and tourism.

Lamar Alexander is Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator.