Senate defeats GOP effort to block EPA regulations

The vote was a stinging setback for the coal industry.

WASHINGTON — The Senate handed environmentalists a major victory Wednesday by defeating a measure that sought to block tighter restrictions on emissions of mercury by coal-fired utility plants.

The vote was a stinging setback for the coal industry, which has warned that the proposed rule by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would force utility companies to shut down some of their older power plants, leading to the loss of coal mining jobs.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voted for the measure while Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, opposed it. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. James Inhoffe, R-Okla., was rejected 53-46.

The EPA, which has been formulating the rule for two decades, wants utility companies to install the best available technology to reduce emissions of mercury, which can damage brain development in young children. Opponents argued that power plants have dramatically reduced mercury emissions to the point where they do not pose a serious health risk.

The vote is likely to emerge as an issue not only in the presidential campaign in Ohio but in Brown’s bid for re-election against Republican Josh Mandel. Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said he was “extremely disappointed’’ in Brown’s vote, adding that “Ohio coal is going to lose markets, and consumers in the state of Ohio will pay more for its electricity.’’

In a conference call with Ohio reporters, Brown defended his vote, saying he did not “believe that it’s a choice between having clean air and jobs to support a family. Good environmental policy can be good jobs policy, it can be good for public health, good for kids, and good for seniors with bronchial disease.’’

By contrast, Portman, who has emerged as a potential vice presidential running mate to presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, warned that “this regulation will cause Ohio power plants to shut down and could cause thousands of Ohioans to lose their jobs, and millions more see a big increase in their electricity rates,’’ Portman said.

Jessica Wehrman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.