After years of stalemate, Washington decision makers are poised this year to impose new federal requirements aimed at curbing air pollution from power plants that each year cuts short the lives of 24,000 Americans.
The question is how far and how fast the country should go.
An analysis commissioned by the environmental group Clean the Air compares current deaths from power plant pollution with projected deaths under three proposals.
The debate will be fully engaged this spring as the Senate takes up the president's proposal to rewrite national air pollution law; yesterday a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee held its first hearing of the year on the bill.
The Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, is pushing to complete work on two major regulations, due to be issued by mid-March, that would address mercury contamination from power plants and pollution that drifts from one state to another in the East and Midwest.
Last month, the EPA finalized new national air quality standards that will force noncompliant states and localities to crack down on local sources of air pollution.
What emerges from all this will affect such things as an average family's monthly electric bill and whether the children in that household develop asthma.
"This is a pivotal moment," said James L. Connaughton, President Bush's top environmental adviser. "This is equal in significance to taking lead out of gasoline, or putting catalytic converters on cars."
Critics of the Bush administration, which has signaled that it will enact the changes this year either through legislation or regulation, say the White House is wasting a critical opportunity by not pushing for stricter standards that could further reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury.
During a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday, Republicans touted Bush's "Clear Skies" legislation, which aims to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by 70 percent -- but not until after 2018. Subcommittee Chairman George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) told reporters after the hearing that GOP leaders plan to press for a full committee vote as soon as mid-February so they can bring the bill to the floor. He added that if they cannot pass the bill in six months, they will consider it dead.
Democrats and public health advocates oppose the measure, saying it would do nothing to curb emissions linked to global warming and would undermine existing air quality standards and enforcement tools. Under the Clean Air Act, they argue, the administration could demand pollution cuts as steep as 90 percent by 2008, and the health benefits would far outweigh the costs to industry.
"You're telling us more than 20,000 premature deaths a year . . . and we're going to reduce this pollution by 2 to 3 percent a year? That just doesn't make sense," said Eric Schaeffer, who resigned as head of the EPA's enforcement division in 2002 and now directs the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group.
No one questions that the United States has dramatically improved the quality of its air since 1970, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act.
In 1990, the EPA evaluated the costs and benefits associated with air pollution controls over the preceding two decades, looking at health costs and lost productivity. Its studies concluded that if the government had not acted, 205,000 more Americans would have died early and millions more would have suffered from heart disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
The pollutants at issue harm people in various ways. The fine particles contained in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide soot become embedded in the lungs and cause respiratory illness as well as heart disease. Mercury, toxic to immature brain cells, makes its way up the food chain from fish swimming in rivers and lakes polluted by power plant emissions and hampers brain development in fetuses and young children.