Weekly Column by Lamar Alexander: "Why Cleaner Air Also Means Better Jobs"

Posted on June 15, 2012

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


That’s why this week I will 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.


Here’s why:  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 the air quality permits to locate here.  


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 the jobs they bring to keep coming.


Despite progress in air quality, the Great Smokies still is one of the most polluted national parks.  Standing on Clingman’s Dome, you should be able to see 100 miles through the natural blue haze.   Yet on a smoggy day you can see only 24 miles.


We have 546 Tennesseans working in coal mining according to the Energy Information Administration, and every one of those jobs is 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. Every one of their jobs is 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 ten 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 Mt. 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.   


The rule also controls 186 other hazardous pollutants including arsenic, acid gases and toxic metals.  Utilities have known this was coming since 1990 because these pollutants are specifically identified in federal law.  An added benefit is that the equipment installed to control these hazardous pollutants also will capture fine particles, a major source of respiratory diseases.


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. Longterm, TVA will be able to produce at least one third of its electricity from clean coal plants.  The rest will come 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 Environmental Protection Agency 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.  We also will urge President Obama to exercise his authority to allow six years.   


Ever since Tennesseans elected me to the United States 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.


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