House GOP bill would roll back basic air-pollution rules

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 21, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Friday on a bill that's mushroomed recently into a plan to block the Obama administration's two main rules to clean up air pollution from power plants and change the way the Clean Air Act has worked for 40 years.

House Republicans who crafted the bill say environmental regulations harm economic competitiveness. In recent days, they've added amendments that would stop new air-pollution regulations that operators of coal-fired electric plants have objected to for years. Environmental and health groups call it an extreme attack on the air pollution law.

The amendments would eliminate two air pollution rules for power plants that are nearly ready to go into effect after years of delays. It also would require the Environmental Protection Agency to base acceptable levels of pollution on economic, as well as health, considerations.

"The complaint is that EPA does all the benefits, many of which are questionable, but has refused to look at the collective cost or (electric) reliability impacts," said Jeff Holmstead, a lobbyist for the electric power industry who was the EPA's air administrator during the George W. Bush administration.

The EPA has said it plans to take the combined effects of the upcoming rules into account as far as it legally can.

The TRAIN Act — for Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation — began as a requirement for a new federal committee to analyze the cumulative effects of environmental regulations before they take effect, but amendments have expanded its reach.

One, by Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, would force the EPA to redo the two pending regulations: One would reduce air pollution that crosses state lines in the Eastern half of the country, and the second would limit mercury and other hazardous air pollutants from power plants for the first time nationwide.

Whitfield said earlier this year that he was "especially concerned about what impact these rules will have on the coal producers in my state and the jobs tied to the industry that plays such a vital role in meeting our energy demands, as well as the impact on electricity consumers."

The interstate pollution rule is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. The EPA estimated it would save up to 34,000 lives a year. The mercury and air toxics rule, which is to be finalized by November, is expected to save 17,000 lives a year.

Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks and increase the risk for lung diseases, heart attacks and strokes.

Another amendment would change the way the law sets acceptable levels of pollution.

Under the 1970 Clean Air Act, the EPA sets standards for major air pollutants based only on what's necessary to protect public health with an "adequate margin of safety." Once the level of unhealthy air is set, the agency takes cost into account in determining what methods industries can use and how long they'll have to reduce the pollution.

The amendment by Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, would require the EPA to consider feasibility and cost when setting the amount of pollution in the air that's acceptable. This change would negate a unanimous 2001 Supreme Court ruling that the Clean Air Act doesn't allow the EPA to take costs into account when it's setting air standards.

John Walke, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog that the change would force the EPA "to set unprotective air quality standards for smog and soot and lead pollution that are at odds with health science, based on cost complaints by polluting industries."

House passage of the TRAIN Act is considered certain.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Wednesday that she thought she could block the act in the Senate. But "this is not a slam dunk for us," she added, because the bill could get recycled into budget or deficit-reduction measures.

The White House issued a statement Wednesday that said top staff there would advise President Barack Obama to veto the TRAIN Act if it reached his desk. In a statement, the administration said the bill would block two "landmark public health regulations under the Clean Air Act" that were long overdue.

Power plants got an exemption on mercury requirements under the Clean Air Act for many years. Some states have such regulations, but there's no nationwide requirement. Mercury in air settles in water. Humans ingest it from eating contaminated fish. It can damage the brain and reduce IQ in fetuses and children.

Whitfield's amendment would require the cross-state pollution rule to be revised to be more palatable for industry and not to go into effect for at least three years after the government finished studying it. The mercury rule also would be revised to make it more favorable for industry. Further, it couldn't be put out for a year after the study ended, and industries would have at least five years before they'd have to comply with it.

Plants need several types of large pollution-control equipment to meet the requirements, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars at each facility, Holmstead said.

Pollution-control supporters say that a U.S. pollution-control equipment industry creates jobs and exports. They also say that EPA data show that health benefits greatly outweigh the costs.

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Check out McClatchy's politics blog: Planet Washington

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