Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

Flood Insurance and Modernization Act

Floor Speech

Location: Unknown


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, last December, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule called the Mercury Air Toxics Standard for powerplants. This rule is important, and it was long overdue.

Many Americans might not realize that before last December, there were no Federal standards for mercury or the other toxic air pollution pouring out of our Nation's powerplants. Thirty-two years ago, Congress directed EPA to limit toxic air pollution from all big polluting industries. In response, EPA set standards for nearly 100 industries across our Nation.

However, until December, there were no such standards for the utility industry--the biggest source of mercury, arsenic, and other toxic air pollution in the country.

Now there are standards in place, estimated to provide $3 to $9 of health and economic benefits for every $1 invested in pollution controls. We should be celebrating this sensible yet significant public health achievement. Yet from the other side of the aisle we only hear about the $1 that the polluters have to spend to clean up. We never hear about the $3 to $9 the rest of the public saves as a result of the pollution being cleaned up.

We hear about the cost to the polluter all the time. We never hear about the cost, for example, of an asthma attack caused by soot and ozone. We never hear about the public health cost to all of us of the child having to go to the emergency room for an asthma attack. We never hear about the cost to the business of the mom who is not at work that day because she is off on a sick day taking care of that child in the emergency room or, if she is working on a regular wage, maybe it is on her. Maybe she does not get paid for that day because she is in the emergency room with her child. We never hear about that cost.

How about the simple cost of a mother stuck in an emergency room with a child having a pollution-provoked asthma attack, waiting anxiously--waiting for the nebulizer to kick in, waiting for that little oxygen meter on the child's finger to show that the oxygen levels are back where they should be? That is not even counted--the worry of a mom for her child having a pollution-caused asthma incident. We never hear about that. We never hear about the dollar side. All they talk about, all we hear about from them is the $1 the polluter has to pay to clean up their pollution--never, in this case, the $3 to $9; in other cases it is $35 to $1, over $100 to $1.

Instead, we have colleagues on the other side who want to halt this progress--notwithstanding the savings for virtually every American--with a resolution we are facing now that would void these new standards--standards that have just emerged after 32 years for the first time regulating toxic pollution out of utility plants. This resolution would not only void the new standard, but it would bar EPA from ever setting similar limits on powerplants in the future.

In speeches against these public health standards, one of my colleagues appears somewhat confused about the mercury air toxic standards. I wish to set the record straight on two points. One, this colleague has complained that the technology does not exist to meet these standards. That is the complaint: the technology does not exist to meet these standards. But if you look at the Clean Air Act, it directs the EPA--as EPA did--to set these standards based upon the performance of the top 12 percent in the industry--the actual performance of the top 12 percent in the industry. In other words, at least one out of every eight powerplant units must already be meeting each of the standards that is set. This is not a case in which the technology does not exist. This is a situation in which one out of every eight plants is already meeting it. The technology assuredly exists, demonstrably exists. What EPA is doing is leveling the field so that utilities do not get a competitive advantage by running dirtier powerplants than their fellow utilities.

This colleague has also complained that the rule establishes standards for toxic air pollution other than mercury. Well, limiting all toxic air pollution at once is more efficient for the utilities than tackling each pollutant separately. Frankly, if we are going at mercury once, and then later arsenic--and over and over the utilities had to go back and recalibrate--we would be hearing complaints that was the wrong way to do it. So if you do it all at once, they complain; if you do it separately, they would complain. The bottom line is, any time polluters are asked to clean up their act, some people are going to complain.

In section 112(d) of the Clean Air Act, Congress told the EPA that they shall establish emission standards for each category of major sources of the toxic air pollutants listed in section 112(c). Congress provided a list of 180 pollutants, which EPA used as the basis for the powerplant standards. You cannot fault EPA for that. Moreover, the staggering health benefits of this rule--4,700 fewer anticipated heart attacks, 130,000 fewer cases of child asthma symptoms, 5,700 fewer emergency room visits each year--flow from limiting all toxic air pollution from powerplants--not eliminating, limiting all toxic air pollution from powerplants rather than just mercury.

In pointing out that EPA correctly sought to limit all toxic air pollution from powerplants, I do not want to gloss over the importance of setting those Federal mercury standards. As I indicated earlier, powerplants are the largest source of airborne mercury pollution in the United States.

Mercury, as everybody knows, is a neurotoxin that can be most devastating to developing nervous systems. The reason we have the phrase ``mad as a hatter'' is because hatters used mercury in their work and it affected their brains. It is a neurotoxin. Exposure to mercury in utero, or as a child, can permanently reduce a person's ability to think and learn. For this reason, women of childbearing age, infants, and children must avoid mercury exposure.

What does this mean for Rhode Island? Many of you have heard me talk about the out-of-State air pollution that plagues my State. Most air pollution in Rhode Island is not generated from within our borders. It is sent from sources hundreds, even thousands of miles away. It is sent by powerplants out of State in significant measure.

On a clear summer day in Rhode Island, we will be commuting in to work, and we will hear on the drive-time radio: Today is a bad air day in Rhode Island. Infants, seniors, and people with respiratory difficulties should stay indoors today; otherwise, it is a beautiful day--a summer day when kids should be out playing. But if they have asthma, if they have a respiratory ailment, no, they are condemned to stay indoors--not because of anything that happened in Rhode Island but because of out-of-State pollution, mostly from these powerplants.

So the same sources that create those bad air days for Rhode Island--that force seniors and infants and children, people with respiratory difficulties to stay indoors on an otherwise fine summer day--also send us mercury pollution, which is why, although Rhode Island does not have a single coal-fired generating unit within its borders, our health department has to issue fish advisories.

If there is one emblematic image of American families

doing something in the out-of-doors, it is the parent or grandparent taking their child--their son or their daughter--or their grandchild fishing. Norman Rockwell has captured this image. Many of us have similar images stored away in our childhood memories.

Yet today if a child goes fishing with her grandfather in Rhode Island, she cannot eat the fish she caught. The Rhode Island Department of Health warns that pregnant women, women thinking of becoming pregnant, and small children should not eat any freshwater fish in Rhode Island. The health department also warns these populations not to eat some saltwater fish, such as shark and swordfish, because they have high levels of mercury stored in their fat. The health department suggests that no one in Rhode Island should eat more than one serving of freshwater fish--not just children, women who are pregnant, and women thinking of becoming pregnant--no one in Rhode Island should eat more than one serving of freshwater fish caught in our State each month in order to protect against mercury poisoning.

Finally, the health department warns that no one should ever eat any of the fish caught in three bodies of water in Rhode Island: The Quidnick Reservoir, Wincheck Pond, and Yawgoog Pond. For those of us who remember fishing as kids and eating what we caught, this is a sad state of affairs, and this is a state of affairs caused by polluters. This cost of a family not being able to go to Quidnick Reservoir, to Wincheck Pond to catch a fish, to take it home, to fry it up, to eat it--to do things that are as American as apple pie, in some respects--is because of the polluters.


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. First of all, let me thank my wonderful chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee for joining me on the floor and asking me this question. The figure I have used--I have been more conservative--is in a range between $3 and $9. But there is a very significant payback. As I was pointing out, that payback actually counts in hard dollars to the public. It does not count things such as, as I mentioned in my speech, the worry of a mom spending the day in the emergency room waiting for her child's breathing to recover. It may take into account her or her employer's economic loss. It does not take into account her worry. It does not take into account the grandfather not being able to take the fish home from Yawgoog Pond because it is now poisonous because out-of-State polluters have dumped mercury into the atmosphere and into the pond for so long.

Those are real costs if you have a traditional American kind of family and people go fishing together and do things such as that. You cannot do that any longer. That does not even count in the equation. The polluters get to take that away from America for free in that equation.

But, as I said, what is interesting is that our friends on the other side only seem to think about, only seem to notice, only seem to talk about the $1 that the polluters have to pay to clean up their act. They do not talk about the folks who get the jobs repairing the pollution, building the scrubbers--the American jobs that creates. They just talk about their cost, and they do not talk at all about the cost on the other side--the health care costs, the job losses, the loss of education, the long-term health damage that people undertake.


While the Senator is on the floor, let me tell my chairman how proud I am of the job she did yesterday on our highway bill. Getting out there with those big trucks and with the big, heavy paving equipment was a wonderful way of demonstrating to the public what has happened here, which is that the most important jobs bill the Senate has passed this year is being blocked by the House to eliminate or damage the summer construction season for highway work.

In my State, as I think I have told the Senator, we have more than 90 projects on the roster for this summer's highway construction season. Forty of them are falling off because of the delay from March until June that the Republicans already forced on us.

As the Senator has told me, they are trying to push for another delay that is going to knock more projects off, put more people out of work. Ours was a bipartisan bill. It could not have been better and more openly and transparently run by the Senator and her ranking member, Senator Inhofe.

There are 2.9 million jobs at stake. Everybody gets that our roads and highways need repair. Yet a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives will not agree to go forward. And time is running out on this summer's construction season.


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. They get the benefit of knocking down jobs in the runup to the election, which I think is a disgraceful way to go about the Nation's business. But we cannot move them. The irony and the tragedy here is, if Speaker Boehner would call up this bipartisan Senate transportation bill, it would pass.


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. It would pass with Republican votes and Democratic votes, and we could put people back to work across this country right now, doing the work that every American knows our highway system needs. This is not bridges to nowhere. This is bridges that people drive across to get to work. This is potholes and highways and places like 95 that goes through Providence on a viaduct. It is falling in so much that they have put planks underneath it to keep the pieces that fall through from landing on the Amtrak trains and the car traffic underneath.

We need this work. We need these jobs. It is so disingenuous and so cynical to stop this work just because there is an election coming. What the Senator did yesterday to press on that was very important. I appreciate that.


Skip to top

Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.

Back to top