PI Original Steven Ross Johnson Monday February 27th, 2012, 2:23pm

The Fight To Preserve Clean Air Standards

The past year has proven to be a challenging time for defenders of clean air regulation, as opponents on the national level have stepped up their efforts to roll back or weaken existing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards while fighting to block or delay new rules that are set to go into effect.

The past year has proven to be a challenging time for defenders of clean air regulation, as opponents on the national level have stepped up their efforts to roll back or weaken existing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards while fighting to block or delay new rules that are set to go into effect.

Few regulations highlight the current fight more clearly than the battle that has taken place over the EPA’s new Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would require power plants in 27 states to comply with new guidelines intended to reduce emissions.

Set to go into effect January 1 of this year, opponents of the rule were successful in staging a legal challenge at the end of 2011 that delayed its implementation, which experts estimate could roll back is compliance date to sometime in 2013 if a federal court upholds the regulation at all.

CSAPR has seen strong opposition from members of Congress, where a number of legislators, such as Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, have introduced bills designed to stop the new guidelines, claiming spikes in utility rates and a loss of jobs would occur as a result of compliance.

More recently, legislative efforts were taken to nullify the Mercury Air Toxics Standards rule, which would set regulations for mercury pollution emitted from the nation’s power plants.

Though the rule was published in the federal register on February 16 – meaning the deadline officially began for power plants to comply with rules by April 2015 – it did not stop some legislators, led by Oklahoma republican Senator James Inhofe to try to use obscure procedural measures in order to force a simple majority vote that could have blocked the regulation if passed.

“This is the time where we’ve seen attacks that have been placing the Act at its greatest risk in its 40-year history,” said Peter Iwanowicz, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association. “In the past there have been attempts to sort of try and repeal certain sections or completely block EPA rules, but we’re seeing from our perspective a full-on attack against the Clean Air Act and what the EPA has been trying to do for years, clean up pollution. It’s been relentless.”

In response to the attacks, the ALA recently announced the launch of a new campaign designed to build coalitions among environmental and health advocates, as well as educate the public on the importance of protecting the Clean Air Act.

“If we lose the Clean Air Act, people are going to get sick and die,” Iwanowicz said. “If we save the Clean Air Act and push EPA to implement it, fewer people will die and fewer people will get sick.”

The ALA estimates in 2010 the Clean Air Act helped prevent 160,000 premature deaths and more than 80,000 hospital admission due to respiratory and cardiovascular complications related to exposure to ozone and harmful pollutants.

In Illinois, where the state’s own stringent set of regulations established during the Blagojevich administration have been heralded by environmental groups for being at the forefront in efforts to reduce mercury emissions from power plants, the fight in Washington is of particular interest, since new federal standards could force other Midwestern states to comply to those already enforced in Illinois.   

“The new federal regulation just does what Illinois regulations already did,” said Rob Kelter, senior attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “So essentially what it means is Illinois is going to benefit from the coal plants in Michigan and surrounding Midwest states that pollute the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is going to be cleaner because of those regulations, because the other states are going to have to stop emitting mercury the way Illinois already did.”

Despite state legislative measures, the ALA estimated pollution that comes into Illinois from neighboring states — along with emissions coming from its 23 coal-fired power plants — help contribute to the Chicago area being ranked 17th in the nation for particle pollutants, while Cook County was ranked the 21st most polluted county in the U.S. In its 2011 State of the Air Report, the organization gave Cook and Madison counties a grade of “F” for ozone pollution, while Lake, Peoria and Randolph counties each received a grade of “D”.

Kelter felt the fact that Illinois already passed its own mercury regulations has contributed to the lack of opposition seen in other states and in Washington over the implementation of the federal standards.

“I think most of our state representatives recognize the fact that Illinois already passed tough legislation [and] that our state legislature was on the forefront of protecting its citizens,” Kelter said. “Now, the rest of the Midwest and the rest of the country need to catch up.”

The congressional fight over the preservation of clean air rules prompted legislators in the Illinois House to pass a resolution last May supporting the EPA’s regulations, and opposing, “…any efforts in Congress to weaken the U.S. EPA’s ability to set standards to protect our health and cut dangerous air pollution from power plants and other large pollution sources.” Currently the measure is still being considered within the state Senate.

Earlier this month, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that efforts by Gov. Pat Quinn and other elected officials led to a reversal by federal regulators, who initially ruled that the Chicago area was in compliance with the Clean Air Act between 2008 and 2010 but have since changed their minds with the addition of 2011 data. The reversal preserves some $80 million in federal funding each year allocated toward easing congestion through the establishment of bike trails and mass transit projects.

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