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Clearing the air over GAIN Act

Republican senators say loosening Clean Air Act requirements will free up companies to clean up their plants; Gillibrand, environmentalists say it will only increase acid rain and other pollution

The Gavin Power Plant on the Ohio River in Cheshire, Ohio, is fired by coal. (Photo provided — Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand opposes the Growing American Innovation Now Act, a bill that would loosen air pollution regulations for coal plants.

Supporters of this bill say it will allow power companies to better protect the environment, as companies are currently “disincentivized” from installing the filters that stop pollutants from entering the air, but Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and environmentalists said it would lead to more pollution and harm the health of New York’s environment and people.

Power plants in the Midwest are required to install filters to keep chemicals like nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides — which cause acid rain — from getting into the air and floating downwind to fall on the Adirondacks in rain or snow. However, since 2017 many plants have not turned these filters on, even if they are already installed, and have not faced any consequences from President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency for breaking the rule. This bill would essentially legalize this practice.

Last week in a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, Gillibrand questioned environmental experts who said the Republican-backed bill would allow coal plants to legally evade Clean Air Act regulations.

A companion bill in the House of Representatives, called the New Source Review Permitting Improvement Act, is in committee as well. U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik declined to comment on how she would vote on this bill if it reaches the House floor.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks May 7, 2018, at the Adirondack North Country Association office in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Companies “disincentivized”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the four other Republican senators who introduced the bill said the GAIN Act would keep job makers from “jumping over regulatory hurdles” and “allow facility owners and operators to focus on protecting the environment, growing the economy and creating American jobs.”

The act would alter the New Source Review program, a Clean Air Act program that requires industrial facilities to install pollution control equipment when they are built or when making a change that increases emissions significantly.

The Republican senators, citing the testimony of power company owners, said the NSR program actually “disincentivize(s)” these companies from making these environmentally healthy changes because the upgrades can be expensive, which can lead stakeholders to abandon the projects.

“New Source Review is the poster child of negative unintended consequences from otherwise well-intentioned government policies,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. “This environmental regulation actually prevents industry from making upgrades to existing facilities to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.”

The GAIN Act would change the criteria for triggering a New Source Review, changing the definition of “modification” and “construction” to clarify when NSR permits are required.

The EPA administrator would still have authority, under certain, clearly defined circumstances, to require NSR permitting after it is determined that there has been an adverse effect to human health or the environment; however, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has not punished companies currently breaking the law.

Potential health harm

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Gillibrand questioned John Walke, the clean air director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, on if the GAIN Act would increase pollution, to the harm of New York and its residents.

“This bill would have very significant air pollution increases,” Walke said. “We know that the downwind states are suffering from air pollution that they cannot control from big power plants in the Midwest and upwind in the Southeast as well.”

He testified that this could cause environmental damage, letting mercury and lead enter New York’s waterways. Gillibrand asked about acid rain, and Walke confirmed that it would make acid rain events more frequent.

“This bill increases long-term, annual air pollution levels of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides, which contribute to and cause acid rain,” Walke said.

Walke said these plants’ pollutants also pose a health risk.

“Some of these types of pollution … are unsafe at any level. So even in areas that are nominally meeting these standards, people are dying,” Walke said. “Parts of New York have some of the highest asthma rates of anywhere in the country.”

He said it is in the power plant company owners’ economic interest to run their plants longer, harder and with fewer restrictions.

“Another dirty little secret of the Clean Air Act, I’m afraid, is that even plants that are equipped with these controls are allowed to turn them off after they are charging customers for these controls that they are allowed not to operate,” Walke said.

Gillibrand highlighted a recent report with data from the EPA, compiled by the Adirondack Council, which states that this policy and another proposed by the Trump administration would reestablish coal as a major fuel source and result in an over 200% increase of air pollution that causes acid rain.

Another conclusion of this report, that decisions made by the EPA have already caused an increase in acid rain in the Adirondacks, was disputed by two environmental experts.

Gillibrand said the Adirondacks “have suffered the worst acid rain damage in the United States.”

“I would like to issue a standing invitation to my Republican colleagues on this committee to spend some time with me in the Adirondacks so you can see why these impacts would be horrible for that region,” Gillibrand said.