Attacks on public health

The Voinovich amendments fundamentally attack the Clean Air Act safeguards that protect the public against heart and lung disease, asthma and bronchitis, cancer, and even premature death linked to smog, soot, and toxic pollution emitted by dirty power plants.

Nowhere is this more true than the amendments’ radical repeal of the Clean Air Act’s toxic pollution cleanup program. Power plants alone among large industrial polluters have evaded this program for well over a decade already, thanks largely to delay wrought by an illegal Bush administration safe harbor for power plants that was struck down in court.

The amendments repeal EPA’s authority and obligation to sharply cut power plants’ toxic emissions to the maximum degree achievable by modern pollution controls, toxic emissions including lead, arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, chlorine, dioxins, chromium, benzene, and heavy metals like nickel. (The 5-page justification document is – understandably – too embarrassed even to try to justify this egregious repeal.)  

In its place the amendments require EPA to regulate only one air toxin, mercury, but even that authority is weakened by mandating pollution trading for this dangerous neurotoxin; weakening current law and the Carper-Alexander bill’s 90 percent reduction requirements; and gratuitously delaying even this weaker cleanup by three years past the outside statutory deadline under current law.

By eliminating the law’s power plant toxic cleanup program – a special deal that no other industrial sector in America ever has received, for good reason – the amendments would strike a fatal blow to legal protections that EPA must follow and currently is following in the face of a fierce utility industry lobbying blitz. These EPA measures will set rigorous cleanup standards for power plants that will cut not just more than six dozen toxic pollutants but also the deadly sulfur dioxide and soot pollution that are emitted with these toxins out of the same power plant smokestacks. 

In other words, when power plants are required to clean up their toxic pollution by installing scrubbers or other pollution control equipment, the public gets double or triple the bang for its buck when the sulfur dioxide and soot pollution linked to heart and lung diseases and early deaths are reduced simultaneously. By contrast, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution trading schemes will not ensure that old, dirty, uncontrolled power plants install the pollution equipment needed to cut deadly smog, soot, and toxic pollution.

EPA is required to propose strong air toxics rules for power plants that burn coal and oil in March next year, with final rules due in November. Preventing this enormously health-protective outcome by repealing the power plant air toxics rule – and eliminating the pollution control equipment and costs they carry – is the number one objective of these amendments.

The amendments are equally irresponsible on the SO2 and NOx fronts. EPA has analyzed the Carper-Alexander bill and concluded that the three phases of increasingly tighter SO2 and NOx caps will save significant numbers of lives each year: 3,500-9,000 lives saved by 2012; 4,200-11,000 lives saved by 2015; and 5,900-15,000 lives saved by 2020. The bill is projected to avoid 2,600,000 instances of acute respiratory symptoms by 2012, 3,300,000 such episodes by 2015, and 4,200,000 by 2020.

The Voinovich amendments gratuitously delay all of those deadlines by three years, thereby denying the American people the health benefits of those stricter, earlier demands and prolonging the death toll of dirty power in this country.

Polluter protectionism

As mentioned earlier, the amendments are rife with safe harbors, exemptions, and delays designed to benefit dirty power plants at the expense of the public and air quality. But the extent to which polluter protectionism permeates every element of
the amendments is truly extraordinary.

Beginning with the Findings and Purposes of the Carper-Alexander bill, the Voinovich amendments delete every finding that associates air pollution with public health hazards and symptoms. Here are some of the representative deletions:

“(11) exposure to those particles has been associated with adverse health and welfare effects, including—

„„(A) premature mortality;

“(B) aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease (as indicated by hospital admissions and emergency department visits);

“(C) changes in lung function;

“(D) increased respiratory symptoms (such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of 7 breath);

(14) exposure to ground-level ozone can—

“(A) cause symptoms such as wheezing and shortness of breath;

“(B) inflame the linings of the lungs;

“(C) aggravate respiratory illnesses such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis, leading to increased medication use, school absences, doctor, and emergency department visits and hospital admissions;

The 5-page justification document’s explanation for these deletions sets the tone for the motivation behind most of the amendments: “Eliminates those findings that overstate adverse health and environmental impacts of SO2 and NOx emissions and that could be used in tort actions against power plants.”

Note first how absolutely remarkable it is that the office for a United States senator is disputing the association between air pollution and these public health hazards. Our understanding that air pollution causes or worsens these health hazards, including premature death, harkens back at least to the London smog episodes of 1952, in which up to 12,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives due to air pollution. These linkages are as well-established as any pollution hazard association in countless efforts by the National Research Council, the National Academies of Science, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, and expert proceedings across the globe.

Moreover, the actual reason advanced by the document itself for striking these settled facts is to protect corporate defendants against public tort suits (think nuisance and trespass), lest Congress be seen endorsing the radical notion that air pollution is bad for people. Congress wouldn’t want to be seen favoring the truth over the prerogatives of polluter defendants in lawsuits to deny that air pollution is harmful.

This promotion of corporate interests over the public interest – and the truth – is audacious even by Washington standards.