RSS

The Cross-State Air Pollution Act

Mr. WHITEHOUSE: Mr. President, it was fairly recently that this summer I came to the Senate floor to commend the Environmental Protection Agency for finalizing what we called the cross-State air pollution rule, which limits the out-of-State pollution that one State can dump into the wind currents that drop on other States.

To my State, Rhode Island, this is particularly important. Nearly a decade after the EPA began working to address this problem of interstate air pollution, we finally had a path forward that is sensible and protective of public health. That was then, this is now.

Today, Senator Paul of Kentucky proposes to halt this progress, to undo that rule through a Congressional Review Act resolution. That resolution would, one, void the cross-State air pollution rule and, two, bar EPA permanently from ever writing a ``substantially similar'' rule. This means that EPA could never use the Clean Air Act to create a cost-effective pollution trading program to address upwind pollution.

Mr. President, this hits home in my State of Rhode Island. Rhode Island has the sixth highest rate of asthma in the country. More than 11 percent of the people in my State suffer from this chronic disease, and many of them are children.

In 2009 there were 1,750 hospital discharges in Rhode Island for asthma cases. Those hospital stays cost about $8 million in direct medical costs, not to mention the costs of the medication or missed days of work and school.

On a clear summer day in Rhode Island, driving along the sparkling Narragansett Bay, commuting into work, you will often hear the warning on drive-time radio:

Today is a bad air day in Rhode Island. Infants, seniors, people with breathing difficulties should stay indoors today.

On those days, people in those categories are forced to stay at home, missing work, school, and other important activities. Others even in good health are urged to avoid strenuous activities on these bad air days. These are real costs--costs paid in lives and reduced quality of life, in medical bills, public services strained responding to health risks, and in missed days of work and school--all from pollution in our air.

We don't know everything about the causes and cures of asthma, but we do know one thing: air pollution triggers asthma attacks. We know air pollution is a preventable problem.

Rhode Island has worked hard and made great strides to reduce air pollution. We passed laws to prohibit cars and buses from idling their engines and to retrofit all State schoolbuses with diesel pollution controls. We require heavy-duty vehicles used in federally funded construction projects to install diesel pollution controls, adhere to the anti-idling law, and use only low-sulfur diesel. Our transit agency voluntarily retrofitted half of its bus fleet with diesel pollution control equipment.

But Rhode Island cannot solve its air pollution problem on its own. In fact, Doug McVay, who is acting as chief of Rhode Island's Office of Air Resources, told me all of Rhode Island's major sources of air pollution--not just powerplants but any source that holds a major title 5 permit--emit less than 3,000 tons a year of nitrogen oxide, also called NO X, and sulfur dioxide, also called SO2.

Let me repeat that. All major sources in Rhode Island taken together emit annually less than 3,000 tons of these two pollutants. Polluters that will be subject to the cross-State air pollution rule in other States have single units that emit more than that. Some of the larger coal-fired boilers may emit 10,000 to 12,000 tons of these pollutants every year, nearly four times the pollution emitted by all Rhode Island major sources combined.

In Rhode Island, we are willing to pull our weight in achieving air pollution reductions. Indeed, we have done more than pull our own weight; we are pulling above our weight. But we need all States to be pulling their weight, too, to make the air safe to breathe in America from coast to coast.

This year at my request the GAO completed a report about tall smokestacks at coal powerplants. The report found that in 1970, the year the Clean Air Act was enacted, there were two what they call tall stacks--smokestacks over 500 feet in the United States--two.

By 1985 there were more than 180 tall stacks. As of 2010, 284 tall smokestacks were operating at 172 coal powerplants, representing 64 percent of the coal-generating capacity in our country. The industry literally smokestacked its way into compliance with the Clean Air Act.

What do I mean by that? In the early days of the Clean Air Act, some States allowed sources of pollution to build tall smokestacks instead of installing pollution controls. The concept back then was that pollution sent high enough into the atmosphere would be sent far away from the source and would not contribute to air pollution problems--at least in that State. Well, it turns out this air pollution causes problems downwind in other States.

As the GAO report put it, tall stacks generally disburse pollutants over greater distances than shorter stacks and provide pollutants greater time to react in the atmosphere to form ozone and particulate matter.

For this antiquated practice, Rhode Island pays the price. Smokestacking, instead of scrubbing, is what is behind a lot of the ozone in Rhode Island that gives rise to those bad air days. The GAO found that more than half of the boilers attached to tall stacks at coal powerplants do not have a scrubber to control sulfur dioxide emissions--more than half, no scrubber, just a tall smokestack to pump it out to the downwind States. Nearly two-thirds of boilers connected to tall stacks do not have postcombustion controls for nitrogen oxide.

So how does it get to Rhode Island? As GAO concluded, in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. the wind generally blows from west to east. Ozone can travel hundreds of miles with the help of high-speed winds known as the low-level jet. This phenomenon particularly occurs at night due to the ground cooling quicker than the upper atmosphere, which can allow the low-level jet to form and transport ozone and particulate matter with its high winds.

This wind map shows that condition. These are all the midwestern powerplants, and this is the wind that carries them down here to, among other States, Rhode Island.

Five States on this map--Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, and North Carolina--have been identified by EPA as contributing significantly to Rhode Island pollution.

This electricity that comes from uncontrolled powerplants tied to these tall smokestacks might seem cheaper to consumers than a well-controlled powerplant, a powerplant that is scrubbed instead of smokestacking its pollution, but that is really not so. There are costs. The costs just got shifted. The lungs of children and seniors in Rhode Island and other downwind States pay for that cheap electricity, and, truth be told, the lungs of children and seniors in many of the upwind States are paying as well. The States upwind of Rhode Island are downwind of someone else. Ohio and Pennsylvania are upwind of Rhode Island, but they are downwind of other States. That is why EPA's regulatory impact analysis determined that instate and upwind pollution reductions from this rule will save approximately 3,209 lives in Ohio and 2,911 lives in Pennsylvania every year by 2014 and prevent hundreds of heart attacks, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations in those States. This rule opposed by Senator Paul will even save an estimated 1,705 lives in his home State of Kentucky every year by 2014.

It is not just lives saved. EPA estimates that by 2014, the benefits from this rule will range between $110 billion and $280 billion. At the same time, EPA estimates that the rule will cost utilities $4.1 billion to comply in 2012 and another $.8 billion through 2014--a grand total of $4.9 billion against $110 billion to $280 billion in quantifiable benefits.

At the lower end of the range, this rule generates a 22-to-1 ratio of benefits over costs. For every $1 in cost to the polluters who are creating this pollution, to clean it up, there is $22 in benefit to the rest of the country. That is a pretty good investment, and that is at the low end.

At the high end, if it is $280 billion, we are talking about a 56-to-1 ratio of benefits over costs. We have people from polluting States who, to save a buck for their polluters who are running it up smokestacks instead of scrubbing their pollution, to save the buck in putting the scrubber and quit smokestacking their pollution and dumping it on Rhode Island and other States, are willing to blow $56 in benefits to Americans across the country, even in their States. It doesn't make any sense.

The cross-State air rule is good for public health. It is fair. There is no other way Rhode Island can affect these States. We have done everything we can to clean our air. We could stop everything, and we would still be a nonattainment clean air quality State because of what gets bombed in on us from other States. If we don't have EPA defending us, we have no defense at all from States that choose to export their pollution rather than clean it up. And it is very cost effective, better than 51 by the highest estimates. So that is why I will be voting against Senator Paul's resolution to void this rule. I urge my colleagues to do the same.

I yield the floor.