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There's a time when being "conservative" means sticking by tried and true values. And there's a time when it means irrationally clinging to outmoded, even deadly, ways of doing things.

Sadly, the two U.S. senators from Utah the other day chose the wrong meaning.

That's when they voted in favor of a measure based on the idea that just because we have continually allowed the mercury, arsenic, hydrochloric acid and other poisons that rise from the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants to enter our atmosphere, our wildlife and our children's nervous systems, to do otherwise would betray American values.

Thankfully, not everybody thinks emitting tons of neurotoxins into our atmosphere is a tradition worth preserving.

On a vote of 53 to 46, the Senate Wednesday preserved a new rule, laid down by the Environmental Protection Agency and due to take effect in 2015. It is a rule called MATS, Mercury and Air Toxics, and it requires that coal-burning power plants in the United States use "maximum available control technology" to clean up emissions.

Among those voting to kill the rule were Utah's Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee. Both issued statements — Lee gave an impassioned floor speech — denouncing the MATS rule as a (you guessed it) "job killer" that would hike electricity costs.

The rule would be expensive to follow. The EPA's estimate is that it would cost industry some $10 billion a year to comply. But it would also save society as a whole — including those who work for coal companies and power plants — some $37 billion a year in medical and other costs. The savings in human suffering — 11,000 premature deaths per year, 4,700 nonfatal heart attacks, hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory illness — are on top of that.

At least some of those avoided deaths and illnesses would certainly come in Utah, where the effects of upwind mercury are already well known and rightly feared.

Rather than make excuses for the coal and power industries, Lee and Hatch would have been better off following the lead of their colleague from West Virginia, a state that's practically made out of coal, Jay Rockefeller.

Yes, he's a Democrat. But he told the truth when he said the coal industry was doing itself and its employees no favor when it insisted on clinging to a dirty, polluted and technologically backward past.

"It's a terrible disservice to coal miners and their families to tell them that everything can be as it was," Rockfeller said. "That can't be. It's over."

And not a moment too soon.

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