Senate Vote Shows Support for Environmental Issues

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to reject an attempt to delay Bush administration revisions to the Clean Air Act. The vote represents the first major battle by Congressional Democrats to support the environment in the 108th Congress, and while unsuccessful, some environmental groups said measure's narrow defeat suggests that the administration may have a tough time selling its most controversial initiatives.

With a 50-46 vote, the Senate defeated an amendment to an omnibus spending bill that would have delayed the new source review (NSR) revisions for six months while a study of the potential impacts of the revisions was completed. The Senate did approve a separate amendment calling for the National Academy of Sciences to complete such a study, but without requiring that the NSR revisions be placed on hold in the interim.

power plant

Aging coal burning power plants are expected to benefit from the revised NSR rules, which will make it easier for plants to upgrade without installing modern emissions control equipment. (Photo courtesy NREL)
"The Senate threw away a chance to stop the Bush administration's plan to weaken the Clean Air Act and make protecting the health and safety of families and communities a priority," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "Voting to allow more soot and smog pollution is a terrible way to start the new year."

The NSR provisions of the Clean Air Act require aging power plants and factories to install modern pollution control technology when they increase their output or make other major changes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that as many as 50 percent fewer facilities would be required to install modern air pollution controls under the new rules.

Critics of the administration's NSR revisions say they will allow these older plants to continue polluting, or even to increase the amount of air pollution they emit, when they upgrade their facilities. Exposure to the air pollution including soot and smog forming emissions has been linked to respiratory effects such as asthma attacks, and even premature death.

A recent analysis sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that 30,000 American lives are cut short every year because of pollution from coal fired power plants alone.

Despite repeated requests from 44 U.S. Senators, the EPA declined to provide any analysis showing how the additional pollution would impact respiratory health.

Senator John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, offered an amendment to the fiscal year 2003 omnibus appropriations bill that would keep the new rules from taking effect for six months, pending completion of a thorough, independent study of the health, environmental and pollution impacts of these changes. The revised NSR regulations are scheduled to take effect on March 3, 2003.

Edwards

Senator John Edwards. (Photo by Jenny Warburg, courtesy Office of Senator Edwards)
"Shouldn't we get the whole story before putting our kids and our seniors at risk?," Edwards said in a speech on the Senate floor introducing his amendment, which had six cosponsors. "Six months is not a long time to wait in order to get the whole story. It is far better to wait six months than to say to this administration, 'Go ahead, roll the dice'."

The Senate voted largely along party lines to defeat the proposal, with 46 Republicans and four Democrats voting against the amendment and 40 Democrats and six Republicans voting in favor of the measure. Four Democrats, all of whom had previously indicated they would support the amendment, were absent today.

"Today's outcome ... signals that environmental issues are going to receive close scrutiny in this session of Congress," said Environmental Defense legislative director Elizabeth Thompson. "Had the votes of those senators who were absent been added to the total in favor of the amendment, this could have very well been a tie vote."

Rebecca Stanfield, clean air advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), said the vote "shows that clean air is a bipartisan issue, and that this Senate can defeat attempts to weaken public health safeguards."

In fact, with a 51-45 vote, the Senate voted in favor of an amendment - introduced by James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who now chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works committee - requiring a National Academies study of the impacts of the NSR revisions - but without calling for a delay of the new rules. But critics said the measure, approved by 45 Republicans and six Democrats, represents a "leap before you look" mentality.

Senator Jim Jeffords, the Vermont Independent who chaired the environmental committee until the new Congress was sworn in this month, said in a floor statement the Inhofe amendment "would bar the door after the horse has already left the barn."

Jeffords

Senator Jim Jeffords. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"The Inhofe amendment requires a study that should have been completed long before the rules were finalized and certainly before they become effective," Jeffords said. "We need real public health and air quality information before the rules take effect. Not later, after the damage is done."

Since the proposed NSR revisions were announced in November 2002, more than 130,000 citizens, more than 1,000 physicians, more than 100 members of Congress, former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, and 44 Senators have all spoken out in opposition to the rule changes. The changes have also been challenged in court by nine state attorneys general.

The national association of state air pollution regulators (STAPPA/ALAPCO) has expressed concern that the rules would harm public health, stating that, "We firmly believe the controversial reforms EPA is putting in place will result in unchecked emissions increases that will degrade our air quality and endanger public health."

"We should learn what impacts this clean air giveaway will have on public health before putting it into effect," said the Sierra Club's Pope.

Inhofe

The Senate approved an amendment introduced by Senator James Inhofe, which will require the National Academy of Sciences to review the potential impacts of the NSR revisions. (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Inhofe)
Still, some environmental groups saw cause for hope in today's votes.

"Half the Senate was willing to challenge the Bush Administration's attempt to weaken clean air laws," said John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "That is a significant push back to an administration that has been shameless in its attempts to let the polluters off the hook."

Betsy Loyless, political director of the League of Conservation Voters, said the vote shows that opponents of other Bush administration initiatives that would affect air quality will have a fighting chance to defeat White House proposals, such as President George W. Bush's market based approach to reducing air pollution from power plants, known as the Clear Skies plan.

"Today the Senate sent a loud and clear message to the White House that it cannot roll back clean air protections without a bipartisan battle on Capitol Hill," said Loyless. "Too many senators of both parties are on the side of Americans who want safer, cleaner and healthier air for President Bush's Clear Skies proposal to face a smooth ride in Congress."