WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has run into bipartisan opposition from senators over its plans to cut mercury and other toxic emissions from boilers at large factories and from the heating plants for places such as shopping malls and universities.
The dustup over a seemingly routine environmental rule shows how political worries about the economy and pressure from industries that object to the costs of pollution controls are leading Congress to try to restrain the EPA.
The effort is separate from another bipartisan push in the Senate, lead by Democrat Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, to prevent the EPA from taking action under the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from large facilities. Now that a climate bill is deemed dead in the Senate this year, opponents of air regulations are turning their attention to new EPA efforts to use the Clean Air Act.
The agency has been busy in that arena. Last Friday it announced another proposed air pollution rule, one that would impose limits on emissions of mercury, soot and other harmful pollutants from sewage sludge incinerators.
Earlier, it proposed a rule to cut hazardous pollution from commercial and industrial solid-waste incinerators.
In addition, the EPA is working on what could be one of its biggest moves: the final form of rules that would tighten the standards for ozone, or smog. A final decision is expected at the end of the month.
Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group that keeps track of bad pollution days, reported that 40 states and the District of Columbia had days with unhealthy levels of smog under the current standard, which was set during the Bush administration.
The American Petroleum Institute objected to the EPA's new proposal for a tougher standard, claiming that it would cost what the Manufacturers Alliance estimated would be 7.3 million jobs by 2020.
Industry groups have objected to pollution controls on the grounds of costs throughout the 40-year life of the Clean Air Act. Environmentalists say that their dire predictions through the decades have failed to materialize.
Now, however, jobs are a key issue in the midterm elections. Republicans have a shot at taking control of both houses of Congress. Opponents of air pollution controls are warning about job losses.
"The reality is that with the climate bill in a deep freeze, I think, frankly, the big polluter interests see the Clean Air Act as the only thing left that's threatening them. So they are ramping up their political pressure," said Joe Meldelson, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation. "They're doing that on all the Clean Air Act rules, both for greenhouse gases and the conventional stuff, and sort of smell blood in the water."
The boiler rule is a main target, he said.
The rule is intended to cut air toxics that can harm the developing brains of children and cause cancer and other health and environmental damage. The agency estimated that the controls it proposed on boilers and large heating systems in April would prevent up to 4,800 deaths per year.
Mercury in the air settles into the water, and builds up in fish. People are exposed when they eat the contaminated fish.
The rules also would limit other pollutants that can cause cancer or other illnesses.
The rule on solid waste incinerators would limit soot in addition to toxic pollutants. Soot triggers asthma and can cause heart attacks and other serious problems for people with heart and lung diseases.
In a Sept. 24 letter, 41 senators accused the EPA of proposing regulations on the boilers that would lead "to the loss of potentially thousands of high-paying jobs." Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she was concerned that the rule would harm her state's pulp and paper industry.
The senators' letter also said that the rule imposing restrictions on commercial and industrial solid-waste incinerators could "have a devastating impact on the biomass industry," the renewable energy sector that uses wood chips and other plant material for fuel.
"As the national unemployment rate hovers around 10 percent, and federal, state and municipal finances continue to be in dire straits, our country should not jeopardize thousands of manufacturing jobs," said the letter from more than four-fifths of the Senate's 50 members, including several who usually support the EPA, such as Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
In the letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the senators asked her agency to "consider flexible approaches" on boilers and incinerators.
Jackson wrote back, saying the agency would take their concerns and those expressed by businesses into consideration as it makes the final standards.
"The Clean Air Act does not place our need to increase employment in conflict with our needs to protect public health," Jackson wrote.
Other senators who signed the Sept. 24 letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson:
Mary Landrieu, D-La., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., Evan Bayh, D-Ind., George Voinovich, R-Ohio, Patty Murray, D-Wash., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., Kit Bond, R-Mo., Bob Casey, D-Pa., Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Mark Warner, D-Va., Richard Burr, R-N.C., Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Jim Webb, D-Va., Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., James Inhofe, R-Okla., Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Herb Kohl, D-Wis., John Cornyn, R-Texas, David Vitter, R-La., Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, George LeMieux, R-Fla., Scott Brown, R-Mass., Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY