Columns » Ernest Dumas

Tea-partying GOP puts coal before kids



If the constant warfare over government regulation of business bores or confuses you, this week's news furnishes a perfect primer. The campaign to stop the government from reducing the mercury and arsenic that coal-fired generating plants belch into the air and streams illustrates better than anything what the regulation battle is all about and what it means for the average American.

It means life and health.

Warfare may be a poor word because warfare isn't one-sided. All the heat and inflamed rhetoric on regulation comes from one side, the Republicans, and, of course, the coal, chemical and oil industries that call the shots. Democrats typically have little to say.

It is hard to get used to because Republicans not so long ago were the party of conservation and environmentalism. The great achievements in cleaning the air and streams and saving lives belonged to a couple of Republican presidents, Richard M. Nixon and George H.W. Bush, who signed the original Clean Air Act of 1970 and the 1990 amendments that nearly everyone in the party now is trying to thwart.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Republican point man on government regulation, charges that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration declared war on the coal industry and seek to shut it down. Inhofe says the EPA's new rules requiring electric utilities, including those in Arkansas, to install technology that cleanses coal-plant emissions of mercury, arsenic and other poisons would end the coal industry in 2015, the year that plants must have installed the technology.

That is absurd on its face, but the Republicans argue that burning coal is becoming so expensive as a result of the regulation of emissions that utilities will stop burning coal and turn to clean-burning natural gas or nuclear.

A quarter-century of research has shown conclusively that the mercury from the plants every year causes thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of illnesses, mainly in children — fetal brain damage, heart disease, asthma and other lung diseases.

If you think purification mechanics are expensive for a utility, try paying for a lifetime of birth deformities.

But the government's concern should not be for those people, the tea-party Republicans say, but for the health of the coal industry. Trust me, the coal industry is going to be OK.

The Senate will vote in a few days on Inhofe's bill to block the EPA from controlling the poisons that the coal plants emit. His position is that this is none of the government's business. Republicans, including our own Sen. John Boozman, will join him.

Our own Sen. Mark Pryor introduced a bill to give utilities three more years, until 2018, until they must stop poisoning people. In a remarkable bit of bravado for an Arkansas Democrat nowadays, Pryor says the mercury and other poisons are a real problem and the government should be trying to protect people's health. But since there is so much equipment to be installed by 2015 he thinks utilities should be given a little more time because it might make the machinery cheaper.

Inhofe says Pryor simply wants to sign the coal industry's death warrant three years later.

This is a jobs issue, by the way. Making and installing the equipment is creating thousands of jobs. You would think that Congressman Tim Griffin would be demanding that the work be done forthwith, like the oil pipeline across Nebraska's aquifer.

About half of the 700 coal plants are affected. They include all those in Arkansas, at White Bluff, Newark and Gentry, which are among the most poisonous in the country. The Arkansas utilities say they are aware of the health problems and are happy to install the equipment. Light bills will go up a little to pay for the machinery in a few years.

In the fevered brains of tea-party zealots, the EPA is a rogue agency out to punish and destroy industry. When you hear all the alarms about government regulation, they are talking about the EPA, unless they are talking about banking regulation.

Nearly all its life, under Democratic and Republican presidents, the EPA has been a pussycat, obeisant to the big polluting industries. It was the case with acid rain, carbon dioxide, and other toxic emissions and it is the case with mercury.

Controlling sulfur and nitric oxide poisons (those are the ones that were killing forests and streams in the Appalachians and Adirondacks), mercury, arsenic and other poisonous effluents was the reason Congress passed the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990.

Despite conclusive studies and overwhelming evidence of the climate harm and a mandate from the conservative U.S. Supreme Court, the EPA still has not imposed rules to control greenhouse gases. But the EPA is finally moving on that, to right-wing wails about creeping socialism.

For its great beneficial health impact, stopping the mercury poisoning ought to be like removing the lead from gasoline. Remember when the oil industry said it would make fuel unaffordable to people? Industries always say the sky is falling.

Twenty-two years ago when the Clean Air amendments were passed, studies showed that the mercury from coal burning caused fetal injuries and sicknesses, especially in small children. The 1990 law directed the EPA to study all the effluents from smokestacks and produce rules to control them. Each time the EPA produces a scientific study the industry demands another. Under court orders to do something, the second Bush administration started a cap-and-trade program to reduce mercury but it was thrown out. It rewarded big polluters. In 2008, a federal judge gave the EPA three years to comply with the Clean Air Act and develop standards for mercury, arsenic and other pollutants.

Meantime, people died. From 1998, when the EPA delivered its first comprehensive report on the health impact of mercury and other pollutants, to 2005, when the Bush administration finally acted, mercury emissions shot up 8 percent and arsenic by 31 percent. They continue to soar, and so do deaths. Environmental and health groups, including the association of the country's pediatricians, demanded that the EPA act.

But this is none of the public's, or the government's, business, is it?

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