U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander denounced deregulation this week, bucking a conservative colleague's plan to weaken a key air quality rule.
"Pollution makes our Great Smoky Mountains more like the Great Smoggy Mountains," Alexander said Monday evening on the Senate floor. "We like to see our mountains. And we like for the 9 million visitors who come visit us every year to stay a long time and spend a lot of money."
The Tennessee Republican talked tourism - along with economic development and public health - after Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul sought to overturn an Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting wind-blown pollution from power plants.
"Air pollution blowing from one state into another makes our citizens sick, especially our younger Tennesseans and our older Tennesseans," Alexander said.
For now, the Clean Air Act authorizes the EPA to limit how much each state can pollute within neighboring states. The EPA fines power plants that release excess chemicals, including sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide.
Paul's resolution asks that such regulations "have no force or effect" any longer. The Senate is expected to vote on the proposal today.
In a Washington Times op-ed published in September, Paul said the EPA "has done more harm than good," adding that most environmental regulations "have impaired job creation." There is no fiscal savings estimate in Paul's two-page resolution.
Introduced Monday, Alexander's rebuttal would strengthen the EPA rule by making it a law, but not without cost. The senator's office estimates TVA customers would pay "between $1 and $2 a month" extra on their power bills, according to a news release.
Those costs inspired U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, Alexander's junior colleague from Tennessee, to split the state's Senate votes. Corker announced his support for Paul's proposal after hosting a recent energy summit in Chattanooga attended by several local power moguls, including EPB President Harold DePriest and TVA CEO Tom Kilgore.
"Among the most significant concerns raised were compliance costs from pending federal regulations that will increase the price of power and the expense of doing business in the Tennessee Valley," said Corker spokeswoman Laura Herzog.
Alexander's bill, also sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., would give power plants a year to comply with the Cross State Air Pollution Act before it would take effect.
Alexander's break from GOP environmental policy came six weeks after he announced he would give up his No. 3 spot in the Senate's Republican leadership. It's also a direct assault on an effort that originated in coal-rich Kentucky, the home of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican.
But staffers for Alexander, an air quality defender since his early days as Tennessee governor, downplayed any conflict with McConnell, who wasn't mentioned in Alexander's floor speech or news release.
Still, Alexander's feelings toward Paul's idea were clear.
"Tennesseans admire much about our Kentucky neighbors - their bluegrass, basketball and distinguished U.S. senators," Alexander said. "But we don't want Kentucky's dirty air."
The competing ideas arrive seven months after regulators forced TVA to spend between $3 billion and $5 billion on upgraded pollution controls. That was a result of North Carolina's public nuisance lawsuit against TVA in 2006, claiming the utility's coal-fired plants sent polluted air into the state.
Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky helped develop the settlement, which also required TVA to spend $350 million on clean energy projects to bolster public health.