Senate preserves EPA mercury rule

Posted: Jun 22, 2012

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Air pollution

The Senate today rejected a bid to kill the U.S. EPA rule that President Obama singled out as a signature environmental accomplishment during this year's State of the Union address.

Forty-six senators voted for Sen. James Inhofe's (R-Okla.) resolution to scrap the new mercury rule for power plants, four short of the 50 needed to pass under the Congressional Review Act.

Five Democrats and five Republicans crossed the aisle to vote with the other party on the resolution. Democrats voting for the measure were Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mary Landrieu (La.), and Jim Webb and Mark Warner of Virginia. Republican opponents were Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Scott Brown (Mass.).

After the vote, Inhofe chided the 53 senators who opposed it, especially those who come from coal states and who have criticized EPA in the past.

"Unfortunately, even though a majority in this body has gone on record as wanting to rein in an out-of-control EPA, some chose not to stand with American families but with President Obama -- and they are complicit in the millions of jobs that will be lost and the skyrocketing energy prices that will be forced on their constituents," he said.

The resolution might have had a sweeping effect on EPA's ability to limit hazardous emissions from power plants. Proponents including Inhofe have said that his measure would have "sent EPA back to the drawing board" to craft a more narrowly tailored mercury rule.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity repeated that argument in a statement before the vote, urging senators to support the resolution.

"Passing Senator Inhofe's resolution is the only real opportunity for Congress to make sure EPA takes a reasonable approach to reducing mercury emissions," said Steve Miller, president and CEO of the industry group.

But environmentalists and attorneys who specialize in Clean Air Act issues say the law would not have allowed EPA to craft another rule that limited mercury but not other hazardous air pollutants from the same sources.

The Senate took a break from work on the farm bill today to allow members to make closing arguments for and against Inhofe's measure.

Alexander, who is expected to introduce a competing bill that would delay implementation of the Utility MACT rule for three years, said the rule was important to his constituents.

"This rule means visitors will soon not even think of calling the Great Smoky Mountains the Great Smoggy Mountains because it's one of the most polluted national parks in America," he said. The extension that his bill with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) would provide would reduce the rule's effects on electricity rates, he said.

Manchin said his vote in favor of the resolution was on behalf of his constituents, who produce many of the basic materials that fuel U.S. manufacturing.

"We mine the coal, we make the steel," he said. "And we'll continue to do the heavy lifting."

Snowe said that she had heard from 1,400 constituents who urged her to vote "no," and none who asked her to support the Inhofe measure. She said the Northeast is particularly vulnerable to emissions blown in from coal plants farther west.

"We've borne the brunt of these emissions that have unfortunately affected our state and produced adverse consequences and ill effects on so many of our people," she said. "So I think it is important to control these emissions."

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