Op-Ed: Collins should fight for limits on toxic pollution, not against them

Collins should fight for limits on toxic pollution, not against them
It is not surprising that some members of Congress are attempting to pass sweetheart bills for industry that poses a real danger to public health and air quality.
What is surprising, and disappointing, is to see such an effort being led by Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins.
Sen. Collins has been trying to scuttle long-awaited Environmental Protection Agency pollution standards that would limit toxic pollution from industrial power plants, and save thousands of lives in the process.
Industrial power plants are the on-site power plants used to generate power and heat at large industrial facilities. These plants burn biomass, coal, oil and a variety of wastes like tires, railroad ties and wood from construction and demolition projects. Many are poorly controlled and, as a result, they emit vast quantities of heavy metals, dioxins, carcinogens like formaldehyde, and lung-clogging fine particles.
Mandated under the Clean Air Act, the EPA’s limits on the toxic pollution from industrial power plants would cut the levels of mercury in our waters and the levels of particulate pollution and acid gases in our air.
The EPA’s rule focuses on a small number of plants that are the worst polluters: Fewer than 1 percent of the 1.5 million plants in the country would need to install better emissions controls. But controlling this 1 percent would yield enormous benefits.
The EPA estimates that installing these controls on the worst industrial polluters would save up to 8,100 lives annually, as well as prevent 5,100 heart attacks and 52,000 asthma attacks every year. Every $1 the industry spends controlling its toxic pollution would yield $18 to $44 in public health benefits.
Sen. Collins introduced her legislation to kill the pollution-limit standards last year, and has persisted in trying to smother the EPA regulations. Just this month, Collins attempted to add her legislation as a non-germane amendment to the transportation bill passed by the Senate. It is also unfortunate that Sen. Olympia Snowe supported this bad amendment. Collins’ amendment won a majority, but didn’t reach the 60 votes needed to become part of the bill, and now Collins’ intentions for the future remain unclear.
The EPA’s new pollution limits are readily achievable using emission controls that have been in widespread use for many years. These common-sense limits should be a no-brainer in Maine, of all places, where industrial power plants burn construction and demolition debris containing elevated levels of arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.
It is both disappointing and ironic that Maine’s senator would not want to provide even this minimal level of protection to her constituents, given that burning of construction and demolition debris is banned in other New England states due to health concerns.
Although her arguments have been rejected by everyone except industry lobbyists, Collins has continued to claim that reducing emissions of air toxics would cost too much money and threaten jobs. The EPA estimated the costs to be a mere 1/10 of industry’s inflated figures, and that there could be a marginal net gain in jobs needed to meet the new, cleaner standards.
The National Association of Clean Air Agencies (an association of state agencies that would implement the pollution limits) found the cost claims advanced by the industry lobbyists to be greatly exaggerated, and the non-partisan Congressional Research Service concluded, “little credence can be placed in (the industry study’s) estimate of job losses.”
Collins claims her bill would create only a temporary delay to allow further review of the rules and their impacts. In reality, her bill would kill the existing limits, allow the indefinite postponement of compliance with any limits that EPA might issue in the future, and ensure that any future regulations would be too weak to do any good.
Since Collins introduced her bill last year, the EPA has amended its approach on several key details to address industry concerns, making her bill even less appropriate today.
In a telling turn of events, the former lead Democratic co-sponsor of the Collins bill, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, announced he now opposes the legislation because the EPA’s changes to the proposed rule satisfy his concerns.
We hope that Sen. Collins will reach the same conclusion, and drop her attempts to pass this toxic legislation. Now is not the time to weaken the Clean Air Act, which has served Maine and the nation well for decades.
Lisa Pohlmann is the executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine; Mary S. Booth is the executive director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, and Jim Pew is an attorney with Earthjustice.
Photo credit: Margie S., who lives near the Collins Pine biomass burner in Northern California and who recently lost her husband unexpectedly due to respiratory failure.

Partnership for Policy Integrity