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Citing a letter written by the West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Mr. Wicker argued that under the Clean Air Act the EPA is prohibited from regulating air pollutants in existing power plants that are already being regulated under a different section of the same act.

When asked about the letter, Ms. McCarthy said that in her opinion the legal argument was flawed.

Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat, defended the EPA’s decision and said that he believed the agency was effectively trying to strike a balance between clean environmental goals and economic strength.

In one of her most extended public discussions to date of the new emissions mandates issued June 2, Ms. McCarthy argued that the health and environmental benefits outweighed the costs.

“The first year that these standards go into effect will avoid up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks,” she said. “For soot and smog reduction alone, for every dollar we invest, families will see seven dollars in health benefits.”

Ms. McCarthy added that the agency predicts that electricity costs will actually decrease by 2030, thanks to new energy-saving technological innovations sparked by the mandates.