The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on a Republican proposal to stop the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from implementing new rules that would reduce the amount of dangerous pollutants such as mercury, lead and arsenic emitted from coal burning power plants and prevent more than 100,000 heart and asthma attacks each year.
Lawmakers backing the proposal, led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), claim the rules are part of the Obama administration's job killing "war on coal."
The EPA, however, says the rules will create jobs and save lives, and more than a dozen mainstream health groups, including the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association, agree with the EPA.
The rules are known as Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Operating under the Clean Air Act, MATS require many power plants to install or upgrade pollution control technology, such as smoke stack scrubbers, to reduce the amount of mercury and toxic air pollutants that are released when coal is burned to produce electricity.
Mercury is a neurotoxin known to poison the brains of children and the unborn and can impair a child's ability to learn, according to the EPA.
The White House on Tuesday threatened to veto Inhofe's resolution that would block MATS. White House officials said Republicans were trying to undermine the Clean Air Act and block regulations that would prevent an estimated 130,000 childhood asthma cases, 11,000 premature deaths and 4,700 heart attacks annually.
Coal Country Republican Supports MATS
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander has come out in support of the EPA emissions rules. Alexander has been criticized by fellow conservatives over his support for MATS and is even the target of a nasty attack ad on the subject.
Alexander, however, has said his constituents living in the heart of coal country deserve cleaner air and job-creating innovation.
"Knoxville has been the worst city in the country for asthma three times in the past eight years," Alexander said last week. "Chattanooga is fifth. The Great Smokies is one of the most polluted national parks in the country."
Alexander also said he believes the MATS rules are pro-coal, not anti-coal, because pollution control equipment guarantees that coal will continue to be part of America's clean energy portfolio.
Debating the Cost of Coal Pollution
Opponents of the rules say that some of the country's oldest plants will be forced to shut down and lay off workers because they won't be able to afford upgrades to comply with the new standards.
With apparent disregard for the views of public health groups, a group of GOP lawmakers, who happen to be doctors, sent a letter to President Obama about "the health impacts of unemployment." The letter claims that MATS "will be disastrous in ways not seen since the Great Depression."
The EPA, however, estimates that implementing MATS will create 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs. The value of the air quality and public health improvements alone is expected to total $37 billion to $90 billion annually.
"Comparing the MATS to the Great Depression is over-the-top and preposterous even by deteriorated Washington rhetorical standards," wrote National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) senior attorney John Walke on his blog.
Regulate Mercury Now or Never
Senator Inhofe bypassed the committee with his proposal to squash the MACT standards under a provision of the Congressional Review Act. Under the law, a lawmaker can bypass a committee by gathering 30 senators to support a proposal to challenge rules set by regulators.
If a rule is disapproved under the review act, the regulatory agency may not issue similar rules in the future, and the White House claims the EPA may never be able to set future mercury limits if Inhofe's proposal is approved.
Coal burning power plants are the biggest producers of mercury pollution in the country. Mercury collects in watershed ecosystems and fish and a 2009 study by the US Geological Survey found that every single fish tested in 300 streams and rivers across the country was contaminated with mercury.