The chief aim of the 1990 amendments was to clean up the toxic pollution that had been spewing from the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power plants with almost no regulation for more than 50 years. Burning coal produces a potent toxic stew; it is the leading discharger of chemicals like arsenic, mercury, and sulfur dioxide.
Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and Harvard Medical School have tied coal emissions to heart disease, premature death, lung disease, birth defects, and asthma—especially among the young, whose lungs are not fully developed until they reach the age of 5, and the elderly.
When human lungs are exposed to the mix of nitrogen, ozone, and particulate matter from combusting coal, “it causes direct inflammation to your airways,” according to Dr. Mark R. Windt, a pulmonologist at the University of New Hampshire who sits on the American Thoracic Society’s committee on environmental health policy. (He also asked to be identified as a Republican.) “This produces swelling, making it difficult to breathe. If you really want to know what it feels like, try breathing for a minute through a straw. Then you know what it feels like for those kids. It causes a change in the physical construction to the lungs, called remodeling. The actual lung structure changes, with the growth of thick membranes of new cells, scarring the lungs. It makes it difficult for oxygen to pass through and get to the blood.”
Sulfur dioxide, Windt explains, is even worse: “Think of it as sunburn inside your lungs. When you inhale it, there’s redness, swelling, and mucus is being produced in your lungs because it’s reacting to the inflammation. Lung cells start peeling off and block up your bronchial tubes. This causes blockage and difficulty in breathing.”
Exposure to mercury, meanwhile, lowers an affected population’s IQ and is linked to attention and behavioral problems. Mercury accumulated in fish is toxic to the developing brains of fetuses and young children; it can also lead to blindness, deafness, and seizures.
Bush’s 1990 clean-air law took big steps to reduce many of those emissions. Using a cap-and-trade program, it put a limit on sulfur-dioxide emissions. (Environmentalists and economists have since hailed this as a major success. The first senator to push a major climate-change bill, Republican John McCain, hoped in 2005 to reproduce it in efforts to cut greenhouse gases.) The law required EPA to control other pollutants, too. But in 21 years, many of those rules have still not been implemented. A good example is the regulation for mercury emissions, which was mandated by the 1990 law but worked its way through a purgatory of impact studies and legal delays until finally, in 2008, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals found that EPA had to require that plants meet “maximum achievable control technology” standards for lowering mercury emissions. The federal court said that EPA must issue the rule by Nov. 16, 2011.
Another good example is a regulation sometimes known as the Good Neighbor rule. That one was born during the administration of George W. Bush. In the decade after the Clean Air Act amendments, scientific research showed that sulfur dioxide was far more harmful to human health than had previously been understood, and scientists and economists urged Bush to revisit his father’s rules. During his administration, EPA said that power plants that emit sulfur dioxide and other pollution in one state but cause health and environmental damage downwind in another state must clean up their act.
Federal courts found fault with the technical language and later ordered EPA to reissue it this year. But when Jackson did so this summer, she met with a fusillade of attacks. The coal giant American Electric Power announced that it would have to close three power plants, putting hundreds of workers out of jobs. Critics of Obama said that the rule threatened electricity reliability.
To be sure, Jackson took the mandate for a cross-state rule and ran with it. George W. Bush’s original regulation, for instance, had excluded coal power plants in Texas (the nation’s biggest burner of coal) from the standards. Obama’s version roped Texas back into the fold. On Sept. 20, Luminant, the biggest power producer in Texas, said that the rule was forcing it to shut down two coal boilers and three coal mines, cutting 500 jobs and possibly leading to rolling blackouts. The announcement has poured kerosene on Gov. Rick Perry’s attacks on Obama’s EPA.
ANATOMY OF A REVOLT
Privately, coal chiefs and Republicans say they understand that Jackson inherited a stack of obligations and had to act (a distinction that certainly doesn’t come across in their campaign ads or fiery floor speeches). But they also say that she brought an environmentalist’s zeal to the job—and that it seemed clear, even in the first meetings, that Jackson and McCarthy intended to push the most aggressive interpretation of the rules at the fastest possible speed. They appealed to their friends on Capitol Hill—and on political action committees—for help. “We went to everyone and said, ‘These timelines are unacceptable,’ ” said American Electric Power’s Morris.