IMAGE: OFFICIAL WITH SMOKESTACKS POSTER
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
Acting Assistant Attorney General Ron Tenpas on Tuesday explains the pollution reductions expected from the AEP settlement.
updated 10/11/2007 11:44:18 AM ET 2007-10-11T15:44:18

A $4.6 billion settlement this week by one of the last holdouts among polluting power companies signals the end of a long legal debate over acid rain — and a tougher battle ahead over carbon dioxide and the use of fossil fuels.

The agreement with American Electric Power Co., struck just as the company was to defend itself in court, ends an eight-year battle over reducing smokestack pollution that drifted across Northeast and mid-Atlantic states and chewed away on mountain ranges, bays and national landmarks.

Government officials praised the deal as the largest environmental settlement in the nation's history.

AEP, based in Columbus, Ohio, maintains it never violated Clean Air Act rules to curb emissions, and had already spent or planned to pay $5.1 billion on scrubbers and other equipment to reduce its pollution.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who as the state's attorney general hounded AEP and other pollution-spewing power companies, said AEP finally conceded to legal, scientific and political pressure.

"The debates over acid rain to a certain extent have been resolved," said Spitzer, a Democrat. "Carbon is the real issue now. Do we have to move away from all fossil fuels? These are tough issues, from a policy standpoint and an economic standpoint."

John Walke, a lawyer for Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group involved in the case, said Tuesday's success is a blueprint for confronting global warming.

"Many people have compared where we are now with global warming to where we were with acid rain in the 1980s," said Walke. "We are following the road map from the acid rain era."

The case against AEP began in 1999 when eight states and 13 environmental groups joined the Environmental Protection Agency's crackdown on energy companies accused of rebuilding coal-fired power plants without installing pollution controls as required. In states like New York, officials complained that acid raid linked to sulfates and nitrates from coal-fired plants were eating away at landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty.

In all, the government brought eight lawsuits against polluters accused of violating the Clean Air Act. Four are still ongoing, and AEP was considered the largest polluter of the bunch, government attorneys said.

Tuesday's settlement will reduce pollution by 1.6 billion pounds each year through 2018, and save $32 billion in annual health costs to treat lung and respiratory problems, officials said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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