Good Laws Make Good Neighbors

Why are we allowing states to pass on their pollution?

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F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg / Getty Images

A truck drives down a road past the Fayette Power Project, one of six coal-burning electricity generators near La Grange, Texas.

Imagine this: It’s a brilliantly sunny day. You’ve just pulled clean white sheets out of your front-loading, water-saving washing machine and hung them on the clothesline to dry. You can pat yourself on the back for being frugal while you’re doing nice things for your family.

But next door, your neighbor turns on his Super Duper Soot-Spraying Machine.

The breeze picks up. Within minutes your sheets are gray. You’re coughing. Your baby is wheezing, on the verge of an asthma attack. Back inside, everyone, you say. That dangerous mess ought to be against the law.

Exactly. A new air pollution law is designed to protect states from smog and soot coming in downwind from power plants in neighboring states. The EPA’s Cross State Air Pollution Rule is truly a Good Neighbor Bill. It requires 27 polluting states to take responsibility for cleaning up their mess instead of dumping it all over their neighbor’s clotheslines — and children in schoolyards, houses and gardens.

These days, being a good neighbor is controversial — pro-pollution forces are fighting the rule. House Republicans passed a bill to scrap it. Texas Governor Rick Perry, among others, protested the new rule so fiercely that the EPA eased restrictions for polluters in Texas and nine other states, including Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Wisconsin and Arkansas. These 10 states will now be able to emit 76,000 tons more pollution, with 70,000 tons coming from Texas, home of the nation’s dirtiest plants.

(MORE: Wake Up Rick Perry — and Smell the Fumes)

Amazingly, several major utility executives — including the CEO of Exelon, America’s third-largest utility — have urged the EPA to implement the rule; they say the grid will remain reliable, and the health benefits of reducing emissions will outweigh the costs of implementing the technologies, which they calculate to be modest. (For real utility wonks, there’s a terrific interview with Exelon CEO John Rowe in the Wall Street Journal in which he says that “The current leadership of EPA rightly or wrongly, largely rightly, sees cleaning up the energy fleet as its reason for being … People with the old coal plants are gaming the system.”)

Talk about games. The Good Neighbor Rule is under a renewed attack by freshman Senator Rand Paul (R-KY). He has introduced a resolution — S.J. Res 27 — that would not only block the Good Neighbor Rule, but could prevent the EPA from ever issuing a similar rule again. He is planning to bring his bill up under a sneaky, hardly used legislative procedure that can shut down debate and fast track action in the Senate.

(MORE: How Politics Hurts the EPA’s Mission)

Senator Paul’s proposal, which comes with the endorsement of the 1.8 million members of the Americans for Prosperity funded by Koch Industries, would allow more increases in dangerous air pollution than any action ever considered in the US Senate. A Senate vote on Paul’s deadly bill could come as soon as next week. If Senator Paul has his way, states that want clean air won’t have any control over what’s blowing their way.

Parents spend lots of time teaching their children to play fair, and be good neighbors. Perhaps it is time to start reeducating our politicians.

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