By ELIZABETH BEWLEY, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - For the second time in a year, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander is backing a high-profile clean-air rule written by the Obama administration - and drawing sharp criticism from fellow GOP lawmakers and conservative groups.
Alexander announced this week he will vote against an effort to undo a new Environmental Protection Agency rule that would slash emissions of mercury - which can cause serious birth defects and mental retardation in children - and other hazardous substances from coal-fired power plants. That vote could take place this week.
"I believe this rule will pretty much finish the job of implementing national clean air rules that will greatly improve the health of Tennesseans," said Alexander in an interview Wednesday.
But in a concession to utilities that oppose the rule, Alexander said he and Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas would send a letter Wednesday asking President Barack Obama to give power companies extra time to comply with the new standards.
The rule, known as Utility MACT, requires all power plants to emit as little mercury by 2016 as the cleanest 12 percent emit today. Alexander and Pryor want Obama to push the compliance date back by three years. If he won't, the senators say they will introduce legislation to extend the compliance period.
Alexander made a similar move in November, when he bucked his party to support an Environmental Protection Agency rule aimed at curbing air pollution that crosses into downwind states. He and Pryor also introduced a measure to give utilities more time to comply with that regulation.
Some GOP lawmakers and conservative groups have blasted Alexander for his support of the mercury rule.
Last week, the conservative group American Commitment launched commercials slamming Alexander for siding with Obama in the "war on coal."
The commercial said the Utility MACT rule will produce "billions in new costs, higher electricity prices, and fewer jobs for Tennessee workers" and accuses Alexander of voting "against Tennessee."
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who introduced the resolution of disapproval that would prevent the EPA from implementing Utility MACT, said the proposal from Alexander and Pryor to give utilities more time to comply is a "cover vote" that would "kill coal in six years."
But Alexander may not face much blowback from Tennessee utilities for supporting the mercury rule. That's because the Tennessee Valley Authority has already made plans to reduce emissions of mercury and other pollutants.
Under a settlement with the EPA last year, TVA has agreed to close 20 of its 59 units by the end of 2017. It has installed scrubbers - which reduce sulfur oxide, acid gas and mercury - on 17 of its 48 coal-fired units, and plans to add scrubbers to the four units at its Gallatin plant by 2016, officials say.
Selective catalytic reduction systems, which filter mercury and other pollutants in exhaust, are installed in 21 units, and other mercury-reducing technology is in place at some units.
TVA officials are still deciding whether to close or upgrade 18 other units.
The utility's air programs manager, Don Houston, said TVA won't need to take extra steps to comply with the new mercury rule. But he said Alexander's proposal to push back the compliance date by three years would help.
"Our primary issue with the rule has been sufficient time to plan and install the most cost-effective controls in the most cost-effective manner," he said.
If EPA requires TVA to comply with mercury standards by 2016 - the agency is allowed to grant utilities extra time to comply on a case-by-case basis - TVA may have to temporarily shut down plants that aren't yet upgraded, Houston said.
That could result in power shortages or extra costs for ratepayers, he added.
Environmental advocates say EPA has been planning to regulate mercury for years, and utilities have had more than enough time to prepare for the new rule.
Better air quality in Tennessee would promote public health, tourism in the Great Smoky Mountains, and manufacturing, Alexander said. If emissions from neighboring states pollute Tennessee skies beyond permissible levels, auto manufacturers might not be able to get permits to open new plants in the state, he said.
Seventeen states already require plants to limit mercury emissions, including North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, according to the Center for American Progress. Georgia's law doesn't take effect until 2018.
Tennessee's utilities ranked 15th nationally in toxic air pollution in 2009 and 24th nationally for mercury air pollution, emitting about 1,170 pounds of the chemical, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Fish from more than 20 rivers, creeks and reservoirs in the state should not be eaten due to unsafe mercury levels, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says.
EPA estimates that the mercury standards will prevent up to 370 premature deaths in Tennessee and save $3 billion in health-care costs in 2016 - figures that critics say are inflated.