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From Tennessee, a Ray of Clarity Breaks Through Political Smog

Why it takes centrists to reduce air pollution.


Ideologues and agenda-driven special interests have spent the better part of three years accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of stomping across the land in search of jobs to destroy.

One of the objects of such ire has been what aficionados call "Utility MACT:" the rule, finalized late last year, that limits emissions of mercury, acid gases, and other hazardous air pollutants from coal and oil-fired power plants. MACT is an acronym for "maximum achievable control technologies," a standard set in the Clean Air Act for curbing emissions of mercury and 187 other hazardous air pollutants listed in the law.

Which gets to a salient point that Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, made at a March 20 hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's clean air and nuclear safety subcommittee.

EPA adopted the Utility MACT rule because it was required by law to do so. Limits on mercury emissions are required by revisions to the Clean Air Act that Congress passed in 1990.

"If we don't like the rule, we'll have to change the law," Alexander said several times. The Clean Air Act told EPA to draft a rule, a federal appeals court told EPA to draft a rule, so EPA drafted a rule, Alexander helpfully pointed out.

Not that Alexander is entirely pleased with the way the Obama administration has gone about finalizing the rule. He'd like the president to use his authority to extend the compliance period an additional two years, which would give utilities up to six years to either bolt on mercury controls or close their plants. The extra two years, Alexander said, would give utility execs more certainty, tamp down the likelihood of the rule being tossed out in court, and get the cleanup accomplished.

Perhaps. EPA's Gina McCarthy, who heads the agency's air quality operations, reacted coolly to Alexander's suggestion. Utilities have known since 1990 that mercury controls were coming, she responded at the hearing.

Which gets to another salient point that Alexander made. Back in 2003, he and Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, floated bipartisan legislation to tighten the screws on power plant emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxides (an ingredient in formation of harmful particulates, unsightly hazes, and low-level ozone), and sulfur dioxide (another ingredient of harmful particulates, as well as acid rain).

The bill went nowhere, Alexander recalled, because industry said it went too far and environmentalists said it didn't go far enough. Between the extremes, the bill fell into the void that used to be the political center in Congress.

Nine years later, with Congress ever more polarized, the air quality battle rages on. Alexander's constituents and his beloved Great Smoky Mountains await the long-delayed cleanup of air pollution that afflicts both.

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Republicans for Environmental Protection advocates for environmental issues while adhering to the basic Republican principles of fiscal responsibility and smaller government.
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