Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Earth Day is a Good Day to Save Our Mountaintops

Posted on April 26, 2009

Earth Day is a good day to save our mountaintops. I live in East Tennessee, near the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Millions of Americans visit us every year because of the natural beauty of our landscape. They do not come to Tennessee to see the smog, they do not come to Tennessee to see creeks polluted by mountaintop mining, and they don't come to Tennessee to see ridge-top wind turbines that are three times as tall as our University of Tennessee football stadium – wind turbines which, with their transmission lines, would create a junkyard in the sky. The American landscape is a part of our environment. It is essential to the American character. From John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt to Lady Bird Johnson, generations of Americans have worked to protect the landscape. Some of the same groups that have worked hardest to protect the landscape are neglecting it in pursuit of remedies for climate change. I am working with three Democratic Members of Congress to try to protect the American landscape. The first is Senator Tom Carper of Delaware. He and I are introducing legislation to put stiffer controls on sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury emissions from coal plants. We have the technology to make the air cleaner, and we should be using it. There is no need to delay dealing with sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury while we figure out what to do about carbon. Secondly, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland and I have introduced legislation to ban the practice of blowing off the tops of mountains and dumping the waste in streams to mine coal. Coal is essential to our energy future. I hope we will reserve a Nobel Prize for the scientist who finds a way to deal with the carbon from existing coal plants. But we will create many more jobs by saving our mountaintops to attract tourists than we will by blowing them up to find coal, especially because our state produces less than 2 percent of the nation's coal. Finally, Congressman Heath Shuler of North Carolina and I hosted a forum in Knoxville highlighting the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its choices for renewable energy. Conservation and nuclear power are realistic options for clean electricity for our region, and we should move ahead aggressively with both. But there are other good choices for renewable electricity as well, such as: solar power; underwater river turbines in the Mississippi River; biomass, such as wood chips; and methane from landfills. On the other hand, the idea of polluting our landscape with 500-foot wind turbines and their transmission towers is preposterous. It makes no sense to destroy the environment in the name of saving the environment, especially since the wind only blows about 18 percent of the time at TVA's one wind farm. And much of that is at night, when TVA already has thousands of unused megawatts of electricity that we could be using. TVA should take the $60 million it is spending to buy about 5 megawatts of unreliable wind power and instead buy 10 compact fluorescent light bulbs for every TVA household, which, if used, would save about 920 megawatts of reliable power – the equivalent of an entire nuclear plant. Senator Carper and I hosted a roundtable this past Thursday in the Capitol on our legislation to establish stiff standards for sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury. TVA needs to go ahead and put sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury controls on all its large coal plants that it intends to keep open. But TVA actions alone will not be enough to give us clean air in the Great Smoky Mountains and in Tennessee. We need strong national standards, such as those in our legislation because so much of our dirty air blows in from coal powerplants in other States. Last week, we celebrated Earth Day, and it was a good day to save our mountaintops. The way we should do that is to have stiffer controls for cleaner air, to ban mountaintop removal for coal mining, and to stop the practice of wasting ratepayer dollars for ridge-top wind turbines that destroy the landscape, which is also an essential part of the American environment. # # #