By Nicole Gaudiano
Standing on Fowler Beach, Sen. Tom Carper looked out at Delaware Bay, marveling at a World War II bunker surrounded by water in the distance.
The bunker -- used as a lookout for German U-boats -- once was several hundred feet behind the dune line. But storms and sea-level rise have helped wash away the dunes and erode the shoreline, leaving the bunker, as Carper points out, "in the soup."
Carper pointed to the bunker as a "graphic" illustration of the effects of climate change.
And it appears to be accelerating. It took more than six decades, from 1926 to 1992, for the shoreline at Fowler Beach to recede about 300 feet. In the past two decades, it has receded an additional 200 feet.
"People can say sea-level rise is fiction, it's not real," he said. "I would invite them here."
Carper chairs the Senate subcommittee overseeing the Clean Air Act. He has long defended the Environmental Protection Agency's authority under the law to regulate greenhouse gases and other pollutants considered harmful to public health and the environment.
But these days, in a struggling economy, House Republicans are vigorously fighting that authority, calling EPA regulations "job-destroying."
Measures to block rules for greenhouse gases, bar the EPA from revising particle-pollution standards and delay rules to reduce mercury and hazardous air pollution already have passed the GOP-led House. Another House-passed measure would delay the recently finalized Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, designed to curb power-plant and industrial emissions that hurt air quality in downwind states like Delaware.
Carper also sees southern Delaware's Inland Bays as another at-risk area. They are vulnerable to pollution not only from runoff but from vehicles and coal-fired power plants in other states. Emissions cross state lines and worsen air quality in Delaware, located "at the end of America's tailpipe," Carper said.
"As sea-level rise occurs, we see a danger of tourists coming to Dover not so much for the NASCAR races but for the sailing regatta," Carper said. "For us, these are not esoteric issues. We have huge air-quality issues that destroy people's health and life and the quality of their life."
In the Senate, Carper passed measures to reduce diesel emissions and promote carbon-dioxide sequestration, which some say helps defer global warming. He has tried since 2002 to pass legislation to curb harmful emissions from power plants.
But these days, he said, he's measuring success in the Senate "by the bad things we keep from happening."
To that end, his subcommittee held hearings highlighting the special threat children face from air pollution and the benefits of cleaning up, including added jobs. The hearings have been "vital," providing virtually the only forum for the EPA to make its case, said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch.
Carper is known in environmental circles as a Clean Air Act "champion" who has tried to work with Republicans while fighting attempts to weaken rules targeting polluters, O'Donnell said.
"He's not some nutty firebrand," O'Donnell said. "He's a guy that says cleaning up the air and economic growth go hand in hand."
'Living in the 1990s'
The shallow waters of Delaware's Inland Bays -- Rehoboth Bay, Indian River Bay and Little Assawoman Bay -- provide an important habitat for birds, fish and terrapins, and they draw hundreds of thousands of tourists and seasonal residents a year for fishing, kayaking, swimming and other outdoor activities.
The bays' major environmental problem is nutrient pollution. It leads to low levels of oxygen, threatening plant and aquatic life. Fifteen percent of nitrogen pollution is deposited from the air, said Chris Bason, deputy director at the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays.
Some of the nitrogen comes from the NRG Indian River plant, a coal-fired plant that's visible on clear days from the center. But modeling shows that most is coming from cars, power plants and other sources outside the state.
When the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, conservationists began to see decreases in atmospheric nitrogen entering the bays. Bason said stricter pollution standards could continue to improve that trend.
"If you reduce emissions to the air, you're going to be reducing essentially the emissions to the water," Bason said.
Along with finalizing the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, the Obama administration has taken steps to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles and to reduce mercury and other toxic pollution from power plants. But under intense industry pressure, Obama recently shelved plans for finalizing tougher standards for smog, or ground-level ozone.
That news was a disappointment, Carper said. It means the nation is "stuck" at a faulty ozone standard set in 1997, he said. He plans to hold a hearing soon for administration officials to explain the delay and to help figure out how to stop "living in the 1990s" when it comes to air-quality standards.
Stricter standards could not only help reduce nitrogen loads in the Inland Bays, but it could improve the health of Delawareans. The American Lung Association gave Delaware failing grades this year in each county for high ozone days. Such pollution can cause or exacerbate heart and lung conditions.
Jobs take priority
The ozone standard was among several "job-destroying" regulations that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor targeted in an August memo to House Republicans. The memo set up a schedule for legislative action against the rules -- including several designed to promote better air quality -- for this fall and winter.
House Republicans point to a recent study commissioned by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity that predicts high costs associated with four EPA rules affecting the power sector. Implementing the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and others would cost $21 billion annually, resulting in net job losses of 183,000 annually and increases of as much as 19 percent on electricity rates in some areas, according to the study.
"The regulatory agenda imposed by the Obama administration places enormous costs on working families and businesses and is preventing job growth at a time when we should be encouraging it," Cantor said recently.
But Carper said a clean environment, economic development and job creation "are not mutually exclusive." He points to the Indian River power plant near Millsboro as an example.
As part of a consent decree with the state, NRG Energy is investing $360 million in state-of-the-art technology to clean up emissions at the plant.
By 2013, only the largest of the Indian River plant's four units will remain operating, which eliminates about a dozen full-time positions through attrition. But the construction period over the past two years created hundreds of temporary jobs for skilled workers. And the Bluewater Wind project will ultimately create clean-energy jobs in the state, said Steve Corneli of NRG Energy.
Carper said that if Obama makes a sincere effort to bring "common sense" to regulations, the business community will be more at ease, the economy will improve, and Republicans won't be able to convince people that regulations for cleaner air and water will somehow destroy the economy.
"It's harder to make those arguments when the economy recovers, and it will," he said.
A safe, clean place
Carper said he first fell in love with the Delaware Bay's natural beauty when he flew into Dover Air Force Base as a young naval flight officer in 1969. Discussion about keeping the state clean and pristine causes him to reflect on his work as governor to preserve open space -- and to look ahead to his legacy. It's an emotional topic for him.
"I'll just say this," he said, tearing up. "One hundred years from now, 200 years from now, people are going to come here, and this is still going to be a beautiful place, and it will be a safe and clean place."
One of those places he wants to preserve is Prime Hook, one of two federal wildlife refuges in Delaware. Traveling there, Carper is reminded of one of his mentors, the late former Gov. Russell Peterson, a Republican who later led the National Audubon Society -- and loved birding.
Carper's not much of a birder. But he remembers something Peterson taught him about birders who come to Delaware: "They invest time and money."
As many as 75,000 people visit Prime Hook each year, and the vast majority are wildlife observers. Birders often come from out of state after a storm or hurricane to see what's blown in. When wood sandpipers came through after a storm three years ago, "people were jumping on planes" to see them, said Michael Stroeh, manager of the wildlife refuge.
Carper said he hopes the consequences of inaction don't dawn on voters too late.
"If we continue to see what's happening here at Prime Hook duplicated along the East Coast, people will wake up," he said.