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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Politics of Coal

Air Date: Week of November 12, 1999

Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) talks with host Steve Curwood about the EPA’s landmark suit against 32 of the oldest, and most polluting, coal-fired power plants.

Transcript

CURWOOD: While the Clinton administration's efforts to combat climate change appear stalled in the international arena, back at home the White House is taking steps aimed at cleaning up the air. Joining us now to take a look at the latest developments on this and other related stories is Living on Earth's political observer, Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Hey, Steve.

CURWOOD: Mark, the federal government recently announced it is suing the owners of some thirty-two coal-fired power plants for violating the Clean Air Act. Is this an important move?

HERTSGAARD: A very big deal, Steve. This would be certainly one of the single largest clean-air enforcement actions by the federal government in history. Thirty-two power plants, as you mentioned, responsible for an enormous amount of pollution, but also for an enormous amount of the industry's profits. These are some of the oldest power plants in the country, and therein lies the problem. They were exempted from the original Clean Air Act in 1970, precisely because they were so old, and it was assumed they would be going offline soon and therefore no need to force them to do costly upgrades in the air pollution technologies. Well here it is, 29 years later, and these plants are not out of service and, according to the EPA, in the papers for their lawsuit, they're saying look, these companies have not only kept these plants moving and generating electricity, but they've upgraded them and in the process they were legally bound to add the modern air pollution technologies. They haven't done that. And after talks with the EPA, they couldn't come to a settlement on this, so EPA's had to sue.

CURWOOD: How dirty are these plants?

HERTSGAARD: Extremely dirty, Steve. They are, according to the EPA, if they could have these plants brought up to current standards, it would be the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off of the highways. That's a lot of pollution, a lot of smog, also a lot of greenhouse gases.

CURWOOD: Now, at the same time the Democratic administration in Washington is pushing this lawsuit, the Republican administration in New York is announcing that they want to set their car pollution standards the same as California, very tough. Governor Pataki of New York wants to do this. What are the long-term implications of this move?

HERTSGAARD: This could be very significant if Pataki carries through with it. Right now, as you know, California has tougher vehicle emission standards than any other state in the country. That matters because California is responsible for such a large portion of the automobile market that the manufacturers have to provide cars that meet that standard. So they provide one car for California, one car for the rest of the United States. If New York joins in, and we're told that Massachusetts is not going to be far behind, those three states together account for one quarter of all the automobiles purchased in the United States. At that point you begin to get enough leverage on the market where a super green car, so to speak, that was produced for New York and California would probably become the overall national standard.

CURWOOD: At the same time that we have these executives going after polluting industries, we've got legislators, I'm thinking of Capitol Hill, that is -- well, perhaps bucking the trend. What, Senators Byrd and Lott, Senator Robert Byrd and Trent Lott are pushing some riders. Can you talk to me about those?

HERTSGAARD: Sure. Riders, they are the legislative attempt now to overturn these actions by other parts of the government. In the case of Senator Lott, for example, this EPA lawsuit against the midwestern utilities, Senator Lott this week was shopping around a rider that would essentially negate the EPA lawsuit. And this rider, reportedly, was drafted by the American Electric Power Company itself, one of the big utilities facing the EPA action. And on the other front, we've got Senator Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, the ranking minority member on the Appropriations Committee. Senator Byrd has put forward a rider that would overturn another recent judicial ruling. In the District Court, a judge has held that it is no longer permissible for coal miners in West Virginia to continue blowing the tops off of mountains in the mining process. That's been a very common procedure used in mining. The problem is, of course, that all that debris ends up down in the streams of the state. Seven hundred and fifty miles of waterways have been covered up with debris, and this violates the Clean Water Act, according to the judge. Senator Byrd has ridden to the rescue on this and has tried to attach a rider that would essentially overturn the judge's decision.

CURWOOD: Think the President will go along?

HERTSGAARD: Apparently, at first Clinton told Byrd yes, I'm with you. Then he started to wobble a little bit when enviros criticized him. But enviros are very suspicious that they suspect that Clinton will go along with it.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Mark Hertsgaard speaking to us from San Francisco. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

 

 

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