In the 2008 Olympics, marathon runners and cyclists feared that competing in Beijing could be hazardous to their health because of the poor air quality. China's effort to permanently ratchet down its horrific problem failed, and the country remains among the world's worst polluters of greenhouse emissions.
What's that got to do with the battle between U.S. corporate polluters and Congress over the Clean Air Act? For one, China's pollution problem is a nightmare that now extends across the globe. Second, President Obama has worked to stop America from heading down the same, putrid air path, battling antiregulation forces every step of the way.
Smartly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of new standards for power plants in 27 states, including Minnesota. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, as it's called, is an important step because it's aimed at improving the environment and public health.
The standards call on polluting states to curb toxic emissions that negatively impact other states. The EPA says Minnesota's bad air is corrupting Wisconsin's good air, which is neither neighborly nor healthy for residents of either state. The chemical emissions contribute to acid rain, soot and smog.
As a result, Minnesota will need to reduce its annual emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide at 33 plants by 2012. Most of the Minnesota plants that would be impacted told the Star Tribune Editorial Board that they support the new standards and are willing to comply.
The EPA estimates the annual public benefit to the state would include up to 200 fewer premature deaths (up to 36,000 nationally). The state's total health benefits are estimated at between $650 million and $1.6 billion. Air pollution contributes to serious health problems, including acute bronchitis, asthma, heart attacks and other respiratory illnesses.
Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House as well as power plants elsewhere are squawking at the regulations, but the EPA's job is to protect public health by monitoring air quality. Under the Bush administration, the standards were lowered to levels that violated the Clean Air Act, which spawned an avalanche of lawsuits from environmental groups.
As a result of those court decisions, it appears that companies are being bombarded with new EPA rules. Even so, the agency's approach to cross-state pollution is a wise one. "We're working to limit pollution at its source, rather than waiting for it to move across the country," EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said in a news release. Most plants affected are in the eastern half of the country.
Minnesota Power and Great River Energy both say the timeline is reasonable for them because they operate natural gas peaking plants. Xcel Energy, whose Minnesota plants rely largely on coal-fired power, said any changes could require an extended time frame, but work already done with the Metro Emission Reduction Project has put the company in a good position to move forward.
Minnesota companies need to make every effort to protect the air we breathe and to ensure that communities here and across our state lines aren't adversely affected. If you've ever been to El Paso, Texas, you know the sickening air quality is largely due to factory smokestacks spewing chemical clouds from across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Minnesotans need to be a good neighbor and environmental steward to its bordering states. After all, would we stand for it if their plants choked our air?
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