Breathing Freely: Alternative Energy, Better Use Of Coal Key To Cleaner Air

Posted on April 11, 2005

On April 15, the Environmental Protection Agency designated Hamilton County and 26 other Tennessee counties as not having met federal air quality standards for ozone. These counties include the largest counties in our state, in all five largest population areas. About 65 percent of Tennesseeans live in the 27 non-attainment counties. On June 11 Chattanooga got good news, however. Its early action compact, the plan it submitted to the EPA to meet the standards, was approved. That means Chattanooga now has a three-year "grace period" to prove it is in attainment of federal air quality standards for ozone. But unfortunately, we've received more bad news. On June 30, EPA gave a preliminary report designating counties in Tennessee in violation of federal air quality standards for particulate matter, or soot. Hamilton County and many other Tennessee counties were found to be in non-attainment for soot. This shows the seriousness of the clean-air challenge that Tennesseans face. The consequences of being in nonattainment are not good — not good for jobs, not good for our health and not good for the beauty of East Tennessee. To begin with, polluted air means that it will be harder to attract new businesses with better-paying jobs to Tennessee because it will be harder for those new or expanding businesses to comply with clean-air requirements. To put it another way, cleaner air means better jobs for Tennesseans. Second, ground ozone — the kind of smog that Los Angeles is famous for — along with soot and mercury damage our health. Ozone is a clear, odorless pollutant. You would have no idea you were inhaling it, just as you would have no idea of the damage it might be doing to your lungs. We are also learning more about the dangers of mercury. The EPA has recently warned that pregnant women and children should limit their eating of fish because too much mercury is settling in rivers and is ingested by fish. Doing what is necessary to create safe mercury levels will also help reduce levels of smog and soot. Finally, ground ozone combined with other pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and soot, damages the scenic beauty of our state, one of the principal reasons most of us like to live here. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has become the most polluted national park in the country. The natural visibility in the Great Smokies should be an average of 113 miles. Instead, today, the average visibility is 13 miles. As a senator, the most important thing I can do to help clean the air is make sure there is a strong federal law on sources of pollution, including coal-fired power plants. Otherwise, Chattanooga will struggle to clean up the air on its own. Coal-fired power plants account for 40 percent of the ozone pollution in Tennessee and for 85 percent to 90 percent of the visibility problem in the Great Smokies. On average, coal-fired power plants contribute 40 percent of the soot in urban areas and 70 percent of soot in rural areas, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. TVA' s coal-fired power plants contribute about half of this pollution. The rest comes from power plants in other states. To clean the air, TVA needs to put more pollution controls on the smokestacks of its old plants, especially on plants near the Smokies. President Bush deserves great credit for putting clean air at the top of the agenda as only a president can do. Because his proposal relies upon market forces instead of excessive regulation, it limits costly litigation and creates certainty. In addition, the president's proposal would take significant steps forward in reducing sulfur, nitrogen and mercury pollutants. The president's Clear Skies proposal is an excellent framework upon which to build meaningful clean-air legislation. It is a sound proposal that solves 70 percent to 80 percent of the problem in most of the country, but it doesn't clean the air enough in East Tennessee. The Clear Skies legislation is a good start but it does not go far enough, fast enough. That is why I am supporting the Clean Air Planning Act, which goes farther, faster than the Clear Skies initiative, and why I signed a letter with 44 other senators to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt for stronger mercury standards. As we look at ways to clean the air, we should also encourage investment in hybrid and diesel cars. Chattanooga's Advanced Transportation Technology Institute has provided national leadership in the advancement of electric, hybrid and alternative fuels technology. Ultimately, an important part of the solution may be the hydrogen car. I am proud to be the sponsor of the president's hydrogen car initiative in the Senate. Hydrogen emits nothing into the air except water. That technology, however, won't be viable for another 15 or 20 years. In addition, we should step up use of nuclear power. France produced 78 percent of its electricity with nuclear power plants in 2002. Japan, once devastated by nuclear weapons, generates one-third of its electricity with nuclear plants and has three new nuclear power plants under construction. We invented this technology; we should use it. The nuclear power plants we have now produce electricity without producing the millions of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and carbon that coal-fired plants produce. In addition, nuclear power plants avoid emissions of mercury that coal-fired plants produce. I applaud TVA for its efforts at Browns Ferry to regenerate nuclear power. TVA has always been a leader in providing lowcost, dependable power and has positioned itself as a leader in the industry. I would hope as TVA continues to look for ways to operate dependably while doing its part to clean the air, it will consider other technologies, such as coal gasification. The United States has enough coal to last for hundreds of years. If we can find a way to turn coal into a gas to burn in a clean way, we would have an almost unlimited supply of energy. These are serious issues. As we look for solutions, both short term and long term, I will do my part to work with state and local officials to make the air cleaner in Tennessee. Cleaner air will mean better jobs, better health and the scenic beauty Chattanoogans and Tennesseans cherish. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is chairman of the Senate Energy Subcommittee and Tennessee Valley Authority Congressional Caucus.