WASHINGTON – Robert Stec would like to help clean up the nation's dirty air, but at $1 million a plant to install air-pollution control technology, it would be cheaper for him to move his furniture manufacturing business overseas.
"What good is fresh air if you have a lot of unemployed people breathing it?" asks Stec, president and CEO of Lexington Home Brands (search). The North Carolina furniture maker employs 1,700 workers at three plants, including one that's in a county with air pollution problems.
"Domestic manufacturing is at a cost disadvantage anyway, so when you lay on all this extra environmental stuff ... it becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back," Stec said.
Mayors and economic development officials say Stec's company is one of a growing number of businesses that are not inclined to expand or open new plants in areas cited by the federal government as having too much smog-causing ozone (search) or microscopic soot.
They consider the costs and permits required to operate in those places -- called "non-attainment zones" because they have not achieved acceptable pollution levels -- far too burdensome.
"We're taken off of the look list," said Ted vonCannon, president of the Metropolitan Development Board in Birmingham, Ala. "Most of the time, we'll be dismissed right out of hand."
This conflict between jobs and clean air has gained attention as lawmakers consider President Bush's air-pollution plan, which has failed to pass Congress for three years. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee planned to take it up Wednesday but postponed action for two more weeks to allow for more negotiation.
Democrats insisted that the bill, which would revise the Clean Air Act (search) to set caps on industrial emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and mercury, must also limit carbon dioxide, the chief gas scientists blame for global warming.
In Alabama, some automotive companies -- Mercedes in Vance, Honda in Lincoln, Hyundai in Montgomery -- opted to put their plants on sites that already complied with air pollution standards.
"In our case, it was preferable for us to be in an attainment area because you didn't have the restrictions that you would have had in a non-attainment area," said Linda Sewell, a Mercedes spokeswoman who helped select the plant site in 1993.
Some 509 counties nationwide have been cited over the last year as non-attainment zones by the Environmental Protection Agency (search). The Clean Air Act requires states to develop a plan for reducing emissions in those areas, a prospect that creates uncertainty for businesses because they are likely to face restrictions on production and higher costs.
Environmentalists say that's the way it should be and ask: What good are jobs when people are dying from respiratory illnesses and heart disease caused by polluted air?
"If we move to aggressively clean up the air, that's actually the best way to ensure economic growth throughout the country," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch (search). "Not only can people in these communities have clean air, but businesses can locate anywhere."
Bush's plan would reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by 70 percent by 2018. It also would bring non-attainment regions into compliance through a trading plan in which companies with emissions under the federal limit could sell credits to companies over the limit.
Critics note, however, that actual emission levels are not lowered by the exchange.
At two recent hearings, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, cited the concerns of economic development officials as a critical reason the bill is needed.
Democrats and environmental groups argue that Congress should instead pass a stronger bill that also would regulate carbon dioxide, the chief "greenhouse" gas blamed for global warming (search), and require faster emission reductions.
A competing bill from Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., would reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels and cut the other pollutants by 72 percent to 90 percent by 2009. A proposal from Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., calls for cuts in all four pollutants by a few years later.