New England environmentalists fear Congress will quash EPA mercury-reduction rule

Coal burning plant

The Fisk coal-burning power plant in Chicago, one of the nation's oldest. Photo from Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote soon on a measure that would nullify new EPA regulations designed to cut mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants and New England clean-air advocates worry that a yea vote could stall efforts to lower the mercury in the region’s waterways.

While the battle over the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions has been raging since the Clean Air Act took effect in 1970, environmentalists have been caught off-guard by shifting alliances among New England’s congressional delegation, which in the past has voted in a bloc to support the EPA’s efforts.

The rule at the center of the debate, announced by the EPA in March, would curb the emissions of mercury and other pollutants from coal-fired power plants. In order to comply with the regulation, power plants would be forced to install pollution-capturing technology. About half the nation’s coal-powered plants already use the pollution-control technology.

Using a legislative procedure known as a Congressional Review Act, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has called for a vote to repeal the new rule and the move has been backed by 29 other senators. A vote is expected before the end of the month; if it passes, it would nullify the new rule and force the EPA to gain congressional approval before making any similar rules.

The 1996 Congressional Review Act established a way for Congress to nullify new federal regulations issued by government agencies by passage of a joint resolution.

. Sen. Jim Inhofe

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) speaks on the Senate floor.

Inhofe has argued that the EPA rule, which would take effect in three years, would place an undue burden on the coal industry for too little public benefit. He believes the new regulations are designed to punish the coal industry and strengthen the renewable energy sector.

“This rule isn’t about public health. It’s about one thing — killing coal — as a gift to Obama’s political allies: the environmental movement and crony capitalists who profit through government intervention,” the senator said in a statement issued during the March hearings.

New England pays the price

New England environmental advocates have mobilized against Inhofe’s measure, arguing that nullifying the new rules will lead to further pollution of the region’s air and waterways and the unnecessary death of thousands. Because of geography, New England receives a disproportionate amount of mercury from the Midwest, said Carol Oldham, regional outreach coordinator for the Northeast Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation.

The state government in Vermont has warned all Vermont residents to beware of consuming fish in the state’s waterways because of high mercury levels, she said. Mercury, a powerful neurotoxin, has been linked to birth defects, neurological impairment and many other health problems.

“We get the pollution, so everyone here cares about it,” Oldham said. “I think New England really gets it.”

Some 900,000 public comments, most in favor of the new rule, were recorded by the EPA during a public comment period, making it the most talked-about rule in the agency’s history, said Oldham. The region’s state governments have been aggressive in the past about curbing local mercury emissions and requiring pollution-control technologies, but New Englanders are forced to live with the effects of lax pollution policies in other states, said Oldham.

The Clean Air Act should be the way to have a national set of standards for controlling pollution, she argued. “That’s what we have a federal government for, right?” Oldham said. “As a state, you can control what comes down the road, but you can’t control the air.”

Coal industry objections

But fossil-fuel energy advocates argue the EPA rule is the most expensive rule the agency has ever enacted and would be a crushing burden on the coal industry at a time when even President Obama has advocated an “all-of-the-above” strategy for boosting domestic energy production. Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokesperson for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy, an industry group, asserts that the coal industry has been aggressive in curbing coal emissions on its own. But, she says, asking coal companies to take such a leap forward in just three years is just too much.

“This will prematurely shut down coal refineries,” Camooso Miller said, adding that the EPA under the Obama administration has been heaping burdensome regulations on an already slow regulatory process.

“Countries like China are putting coal plants online every 18 months,” Camooso Miller said. “In the U.S., it takes that long to get a permit, if we’re lucky.”

But environmentalists like Oldham argue that the coal industry has known for decades that regulations like this would eventually work their way into law and has had adequate time to prepare.

“The control technology has existed for decades at this point,” Oldham said.

Clean air advocates say if Inhofe’s proposal goes into effect, the act would permanently hamper the EPA’s ability to regulate emissions, since under the rules of the process, the EPA would be forced to gain congressional approval for any similar rules in the future.

Multiple threats

Inhofe’s proposal is not the only measure seeking to delay the new EPA emissions regulations. The Senate is also considering one bill that would delay implementation of the EPA rule and another that would require the agency to do more financial analysis before it is implemented.

If the Inhofe measure passes the Senate, it would go directly to the president for approval. A successful attempt to nullify the EPA ruling seems unlikely under the Obama administration, which has pushed for EPA regulation of emissions, but the fact that the measure has gotten this far, with 30 backers, is a troubling sign, said Johanna Miller, energy program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

“I’m really hoping it’s something that’s a blip, but I know that’s probably a bit naïve,” Miller said.
What worries clean air advocates is what is seen as an erosion of the New England voting bloc over emissions regulations. In the past, the New England congressional delegation has voted solidly in favor of tightening air pollution standards, which has served as a counterweight to those in Congress from states with economies centered on fossil fuels, said Michael Seilback, a spokesperson for the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

But while Vermont Sens. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, and Bernie Sanders, an independent, have voted solidly against recent efforts to block the emissions process, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) have both procedurally voted to advance legislation delaying or stifling the regulations, he said.

“We’re not seeing the strong, unified block that we know we’ve seen in the past,” Seilback said.

Craig Idlebrook

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  • Steve Merrill

    This seems like revisionist history as Bush (W) canceled the “New Source Review” in 2001 which mandate coal stack ESP’s (electro static precipitator’s) and we have mercury levels off the charts now..It’s not just the fish either, how long before mercury accumulates in our topsoil and the plants we eat from apples to potato’s? Whats the difference between ignorance and apathy? (I don’t know and I don’t care) Where’s the local “news” in all of this? Just look at the weekly obituaries, every young guy(s) holding a fish in their pictures are dying at 40-50 years old and there’s no connection? If this doesn’t get people voting against these Republican energy corp. mouthpieces what in the world will? But then again, no news is NO news, out of sight and out of mind..This is insanity plain and simple..SM

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