The Tennessean: Guest editorial: Move will protect health at small cost

Posted on March 2, 2010

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The Clean Air Act Amendments of 2010, which Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., and I have introduced with nine other senators, show that when important issues are at stake, Republicans and Democrats can work together.

The legislation puts strict limits on three noxious emissions — sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury — that are produced when we burn the coal that provides 50 percent of our nation's electricity. These pollutants affect the health of millions of Americans. Sulfur dioxide combines with water in the atmosphere to form a weak sulfuric acid. It also attaches to microscopic particles that can get into the lungs. Nitrous oxides are a principal element of smog and also cause respiratory problems and harm crops. Mercury is a neurotoxin that harms the heart, kidneys, lungs, immune system and the brain — and is especially dangerous for pregnant women and children.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 24,000 premature deaths a year from lung diseases are caused by coal pollution.

Our legislation will direct the EPA, for the first time, to reduce mercury emissions by at least 90 percent no later than 2015. By 2018, the bill will cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 80 percent from current levels, and by 2015 will cut nitrous oxides emissions by 53 percent from current levels. That should save more than 215,000 lives and more than $2 trillion in health-care costs by 2025, according to the EPA's analysis. It will combine stronger national standards with existing emissions-trading systems so the market will determine the cheapest way to reduce emissions.

The first estimates of the cost of our bill by the EPA and a recent study on mercury control technologies by the General Accountability Office show that the new standards in our bill will equal an increase of about $2-$3 a month on the average Tennessean's utility bill.

Tennessee ranks 10th in the country for sulfur dioxide emissions and 12th for nitrous oxides. According to the American Lung Association, more than 800,000 Tennesseans have chronic lung disease. This is a high emissions state not only because TVA produces 60 percent of its electricity from coal but because dirty air blows in from other states. Strong national emission limits are absolutely necessary if Tennessee cities are to meet tougher federal air-quality standards.

Jobs affected, too

Meeting these standards is crucial to attracting jobs. When Nissan arrived, the first thing it did was apply for an air-quality permit for its paint plant. If Nashville-area air had been too dirty at the time, there would have been no permit, and those jobs would have gone elsewhere. And 10 million tourists a year come to the Smokies, but they come to see the blue haze that the Cherokees sang about, not smog caused by air pollution.

Sen. Carper and I have introduced clean-air legislation every session I have been a senator, but Congress has either failed to act or federal regulations have been stopped by the courts. We have a better chance to succeed this year because of stronger bipartisan support, more public understanding of the dangers and improved technology.

I am a strong advocate for new nuclear power plants, because today they produce 70 percent of our country's pollution-free electricity. But for the foreseeable future, we need to burn coal. While Congress argues about how to control carbon, there is no excuse for waiting to deal with sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and mercury. Bipartisan support for the Clean Air Act Amendments shows that, when it comes to air pollution, we can find a way forward, and the American people will all be better for it.

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