Image: NYC on clean and dirty air days
hazecam.net
Parts of Newark, N.J., and New York City are seen on a clean air day, top, and on one with low air quality.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/7/2011 1:17:03 PM ET 2011-07-07T17:17:03

In an effort to curb air pollution in downwind states, the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday ordered utilities to either clean up or shut down older coal-fired power plants in 27 states in the eastern half of the U.S.

The order, which comes in response to a court ruling, requires utilities to install devices that slash emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — byproducts of burning coal that react with the atmosphere to form the particles that cause soot and smog.

"No community should have to bear the burden of another community's polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses," EPA chief Lisa Jackson said in announcing the rule.

While Jackson argues the cleaner air will improve public health, pushback already has come from some states and companies operating older coal-fired power plants.

They say the rule could prove too costly and that the timeline for compliance is too short.

Anticipating the EPA order, Oklahoma sued the agency in May, citing costs of up to $2.5 billion to install "scrubbers" that would reduce pollution from state coal plants.

That could drive up utility rates by as much as 20 percent, argued Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

Texas also has opposed the rule.

"Both federal and state governments need to focus their resources on real risks, instead of creating false crises that frighten the public and misuse public resources," Bryan Shaw, chairman of the state's environmental agency, testified in Congress last week.

States downwind of power plants mostly support the rule because they end up seeing the haze in their backyards.

The EPA estimates up to $280 billion in annual benefits from cleaner air in areas that are home to 240 million Americans. It figures each year of cleaner air will prevent "up to 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 19,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma and 1.8 million sick days."

'Flexibility' promised
Jackson also promised "flexibility" for adopting the rule, including "allowing states to decide how best to decrease dangerous air pollution in the most cost effective way."

The rule aims to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent from 2005 levels, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 54 percent.

Rule supporters also note that the old plants were largely exempt from existing Clean Air Act initiatives aimed at making new plants cleaner.

The thinking when those exemptions were granted was the problem would take of itself as older plants were retired, said Pat Cummins with the Western Regional Air Partnership. But some owners have instead extended their lives rather than build new and more expensive  plants.

EPA estimates utilities will have to invest $800 million a year in pollution upgrades starting in 2014, in addition to the $1.6 billion annually invested by the industry in recent years.

For consumers, the EPA figures that could translate into a roughly 2 percent increase in monthly electricity bills.

Nationwide, more than 300 old coal plants could face required upgrades, said Stephanie Kodish, an attorney with the National Parks Conservation Association, a group that lobbied for the rule as a way to reduce hazy days in wilderness areas.

The 27 states subject to the rule are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Tighter standards were first issued in 1999 by the Clinton-era EPA.

President George W. Bush's administration revised those in 2005, but in 2008 a federal appeals court ruled that the revised rule did not meet Clean Air Act requirements.

Similar plan in the West
Last month, the EPA announced plans for similar action at aging coal-fired power plants across the West.

A federal judge in Colorado will have to accept or deny the proposed settlement with environmental groups that sued to enforce Clean Air Act provisions. That ruling is expected following a 30-day comment period that ends July 15.

Officials have identified 18 coal plants in the four Western states that would have to be retired, retrofitted with new pollution reduction equipment or otherwise reduce emissions.

Combined, the 18 plants emit more than 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and 150,000 tons of nitrogen oxides a year, according to WildEarth Guardians, a plaintiff in the Colorado case along with the Environmental Defense Fund and National Parks Conservation Association. Several cement and soda ash plants also would have to make changes.

David Eskelen with Pacificorps, which operates four coal plants in Wyoming that fall under the haze rule, said his company has spent $1.2 billion on air quality controls since 2005. But he said it would take 12 years, not five as proposed, to meet the haze requirements.

"We are making excellent progress," Eskelsen said. "If there is a more aggressive reduction schedule, policy makers need to understand this is going to result in significant cost increases to electricity."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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