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Deadly Air Bill Voted Down in Senate

There are some straight spines left in the U.S. Senate, which today voted down a resolution from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) that would have effectively exempted coal-fired power plants—the nation's worst air polluters—from Clean Air Act controls that limit mercury and other toxic emissions. This is a critical victory in the decades-long effort to protect communities from the egregious amounts of health-damaging pollutants that coal plants put in our air.

In contrast, Sen. Inhofe and some of his coaleagues—pardon me, colleagues—have bent over backwards for our nation's most recalcitrant industrial polluters time and again, tone deaf to the fact that coal plant pollution sickens and kills tens of thousands of people every year. In fact, the senator said recently that the Environmental Protection Agency's recently finalized protections against toxic air from coal plants are "not about health." Yet that's exactly what they're about: limits on coal plant air pollution are projected to prevent up to 11,000 deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 childhood asthma attacks every year.

But from the senator's perspective, these benefits are "negligible."

"I find it impossible to relate to the senator's view that such benefits are 'negligible,' and thankfully, a majority of senators appear to as well," said Earthjustice attorney Jim Pew, who has worked for more than a decade to obtain the mercury and air toxic standards for power plants, and who is currently defending them from industry attack on behalf of the NAACP, Sierra Club, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and Clean Air Counsel.

My guess is that Sen. Inhofe doesn't live in the shadow of a smokestack. If he did, he might be coughing a different tune.

"Nearly 1 million people spoke out to support these life-saving protections," added Jacqui Patterson, Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. "Efforts to block the clean-up of toxic power plant emissions are extreme and out of touch with what the public wants: clean air and better health."

Though the support in Congress for dirty industries at the expense of constituent health is sickening, it isn't necessarily surprising. The only thing thicker than the stream of dirty air emissions from old coal plants is the stream of lobbying cash from the dirtiest companies in the game. A recent report from NRDC found that eight companies have spent a whopping $67 million since 2010 lobbying Congress. These companies generated air pollution in 2011 that contributed to as many as 10,300 deaths, 65,000 asthma attacks, 6,600 hospital and ER visits, and 3.4 million days of lost work.

Additionally, these companies' plants emitted nearly 23,000 pounds of toxic mercury, a far greater amount than any other industrial polluter. Mercury is particularly dangerous to young children and fetuses, potentially damaging the capacity of these young ones to think and learn. The protections that Inhofe was attempting to undo will slash power plants' mercury emissions by 90 percent.

Nevertheless, Inhofe has publicly vowed to continue fighting cleaner power plant emissions standards, but Earthjustice and the many community, public health and environmental groups that support reducing deadly pollution from coal plants will also continue to fight for clean air to make our families and communities safer. I don't have $67 million to throw around, but if I did, I know which side I'd bet on.