Weekly Column of Sen. Lamar Alexander - Clearing the Air in Tennessee

For the week of May 15-19, 2006

Posted on May 12, 2006

Recently, I joined Delaware Senator Tom Carper and a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Clean Air Planning Act of 2006, which I believe goes the necessary steps farther and faster than the administration’s new Clean Air proposals in controlling health-damaging pollution from coal-fired power plants. Power plants are the single greatest industrial source of sulfur, nitrogen, mercury and carbon dioxide air pollution. My main concern, and main reason for co-authoring this clean air legislation, is the health of Tennesseans. The more we learn about pollution caused by ozone, fine particles and mercury, the more concerned I am about their effects on our health. For example, the American Lung Association – which supports our bill – says that pollution levels in Tennessee may increase lung cancer risks as much as breathing second-hand cigarette smoke at home. Reducing fine particles and ozone can lower lung cancer risk as well as the risk of heart attacks and asthma attacks from excess levels of fine particle pollution. We’ve also learned a lot more about the effects of mercury contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has placed some regulations on mercury, but the regulations in our bill are much stricter, requiring a 90 percent cut of mercury emissions by 2015. This is especially important for Tennessee, which has mercury “hot spots” due to air pollution from coal-fired power plants both within and outside of Tennessee. We know that mercury is a neurotoxin, which is especially dangerous to developing fetuses, and our legislation would drastically reduce it. It’s important to give the Bush administration credit. In the last year it has produced new Clean Air rules at the EPA which are important steps forward in reducing air pollution from power plants. The administration’s rules are going to help us, but they don’t go far enough, fast enough to make sure Tennessee counties come into compliance with federal clean air standards. I believe our Clean Air Planning Act will. It puts stricter standards on sulfur and nitrogen pollution, and addresses climate change by placing a sensible, modest cap on carbon emissions and providing incentives for farmers and industries in Tennessee to reduce their emissions of carbon. In March, I had a meeting in Knoxville with the county mayors in East Tennessee who have been meeting once a month for the last 28 months to do what they can locally to clean up the air. They are doing a good job. Their work, and the federal standards that went into place in 1990, are beginning to make the air cleaner in Tennessee. But we’re far from being out of the woods. Knox County was recently ranked as the 15th most polluted city for fine particles and in the top 10 percent of ozone polluted areas. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is still the most polluted national park in America. Current visibility on the haziest days in the Smokies is 15 miles when natural visibility on those days ought to be 77 miles. We have a ways to go, but our Clean Air Planning Act is progress. It has bipartisan support and endorsements from the utility industry, environmental and conservation groups, and health organizations. Passage of this bill would be an important step toward improving our air quality in Tennessee, and improving the health of all Tennesseans, especially our seniors and our children.