Video: Cleaning up the air

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Dateline NBC
updated 4/20/2004 8:37:39 AM ET 2004-04-20T12:37:39

If you're going to make a stand by walking away from your job, it should be over something pretty important. How about the air we breathe? A new government report found that the air in 31 states, affecting nearly 160 million people, fails to meet new federal health standards for smog. Part of the reason is pollution coming from big coal-burning power plants. For decades, the Clean Air Act helped improve air quality, a man named Bruce Buckheit helped enforce it. But now, this former top government official has given up his job, frustrated because he says the country is taking a giant step backwards -- and that you and your children may soon see the difference in the air you breathe.

There are few things on earth that Bruce Buckheit feels more passionate about than the air, whether he's catching it in his sails or cleaning it up at old coal burning power plants.

Stone Phillips: “Among the major sources of air pollution in this country where do coal fired power plants rank?”

Bruce Buckheit: “They're number one. By an order of magnitude. There is no one that comes close.”

Buckheit says the nearly 400 coal fired plants scattered across this country, generating more than half of the electricity we use, are dirty old dinosaurs overdue for extinction.

Buckheit: “Can anybody imagine a situation where we have plants that were built in 1950 still emitting as if they were located in China or Mexico? I mean, this country's better than that.”

Buckheit spent the last 20 years of his government career working on air quality issues, most recently as director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Enforcement Division. But in December, he made a difficult decision to retire from the EPA. 

Buckheit: “If we were still enforcing the Clean Air Act the way it should be enforced I would still be there.”


And now he's speaking out for the first time about what he says has happened in the fight to safeguard the air we all breathe. It's a fight he was winning, and there's no better example, he says, than what happened in Tampa, Fla., where a utility executive went from being Buckheit's opponent to his partner in cleaning up the air.

John Ramil has been with the Tampa Electric Company for 27 years. He's now the Chief Operating Officer of its parent company, Teco Energy. The company's two coal-burning plants, one built in 1971, the other dating back to 1957, sit just across the bay from downtown.

John Ramil: “Producing electricity is not benign. And it's not a real easy thing to do.  And it takes massive equipment to do it.”

And it creates massive problems for the environment. Burning coal  releases air pollutants like nitrogen oxide, the main ingredient in smog, sulfur dioxide, which forms acid rain, and toxic mercury, which enters our diet through the fish we eat and has been linked to brain damage in children and fetuses.

For decades, Tampa's air had suffered from coal's effects. Residents like Shari Gonzales didn't have to see brown haze to know when the air was bad. All she had to do was look at her asthmatic son, Sydney, struggling to breathe.

Shari Gonzales: “Oh, it was horrible. It was so dirty. There were days when you could smell it if you were close to the power plant.”

As the country's top cop for air enforcement, Buckheit noticed back in 1997 a worsening of Tampa Electric's pollution levels. If a power plant reports an emissions increase of more than 40-tons a year, it can trigger a closer look by the EPA, and as for the numbers Buckheit saw in Tampa?

Buckheit: “Thousands of tons of increase.”

Buckheit suspected that massive increase was because Tampa Electric was running its old plants longer and harder to meet the electricity demands of a growing city. He thought he saw a way to bring the pollution levels back down, with a novel approach to enforcing a rule in the Federal Clean Air Act.

Energy map of AmericaThe rule is called "New Source Review" and it says that if a utility makes upgrades to keep an aging plant up and running, it must add modern and expensive pollution controls as well. Routine maintenance is no problem, but major changes without pollution controls, are against the law.

Buckheit: “It's as if you had a 1950 car, and you replace the transmission and the engine, and you kept doing that. Without putting on catalytic converters.”

So Buckheit tried something that had never been done before. To find out if Tampa Electric had violated the New Source Review Rule, he didn't look at the smokestacks. He looked at the company's books.

Buckheit: “We started going through the accounting operations to see what capital projects there are. And seeing if we can tie them to emissions increases.”

Phillips: “So basically you follow the money.”

Buckheit: “Yes.”

Ramil: “We sent them boxes and boxes of our maintenance records going back 20 years.”

The records revealed several multi-million dollar projects at Ramil's aging plants.

Phillips: “The EPA cited replacement of the furnace floor unit three, cyclone burners unit four, a super heater over at unit six.”

Ramil: “Correct.”

Phillips: “Are those major changes?”

Ramil: “We do not believe so.”

Phillips: “Did Tampa Electrics plant modifications violate the law?”

Buckheit: “Yes.  Because they had an emissions increase of greater than 40 tons that resulted from a project that was not routine.”

Believing he could make that case in court, Buckheit decided to do just that. Based on his recommendation, in November 1999, the federal government announced lawsuits against Tampa Electric and several other utilities Buckheit had investigated. Then Attorney General Janet Reno called it one of the most significant environmental enforcement actions in the nation's history.

The companies denied any wrongdoing and vowed to defend themselves vigorously in court. Buckheit was prepared for a long, bruising legal battle. But then something entirely unexpected happened.

Ramil: “We wanted to reach a solution so that we could get on with life.”

Alone among the utilities charged with violating clean-air laws, John Ramil's company stepped forward and said it wanted to begin talks about a possible settlement of the lawsuit.

Ramil: “We have a growing customer base, an increase in electricity demand. We have an aging fleet of power plants. How do we make this work? “

It wouldn't be easy, but Ramil realized that environmental concerns about his coal burning plants were not going away, and that rather than fight, it might be more cost-effective in the long run to switch from running dirty to running clean. The settlement he reached with Buckheit's office was hailed as a landmark agreement.

Tampa Electric stopped using coal entirely at one of its plants, converting it to cleaner-burning natural gas, at a cost of $600 million. Ramil's company also agreed to install modern pollution-scrubbing devices on its remaining coal plant -- reducing emissions there by close to 90 percent.

Phillips: “So the air has already improved and it's going to get better?”

Buckheit: “Absolutely.”

Ramil's plants are converted and so is he.

Phillips: “You told us your personal belief is coal fire power plants should all be scrubbed.”

Ramil: “Correct. Coal is important.  And there are ways to burn it responsibly and cleanly. And we're doing that in our plants.”

Phillips: “Do you think the company took any heat for deciding not to fight EPA on this?”

Buckheit: “Absolutely.”

Phillips: Within the industry.”

Buckheit: “Absolutely. I believe that they don't get invited to the Christmas parties anymore.”

Phillips: “Are you a rebel? Or a leader?”

Ramil: “We're viewing ourselves as a leader. A leader is doing what's right for your organization and your particular situation. And I think we've done that.”

Phillips: “In the end, how much money have you spent on these changes?”

Ramil: “About $750 million. And by the time we will complete implementing all the things in the agreement, it'll be about a billion dollars.”

And what's that billion dollar commitment for better air done to the bottom line? The company took on new debt, but Ramil says increased productivity at his new natural gas plant and company-wide efficiencies have enabled Tampa Electric to absorb the costs.  

Phillips: “It hasn't put you in a deep, dark hole financially?”

Ramil: “No. No, it hasn't.”

Phillips: “So, electric rates for your consumers have been stable?”

Ramil: “Electric rates have been stable. We're earning fair returns for our shareholders.”

Phillips: “You're leaner and meaner and cleaner.”

Ramil: “Leaner, meaner and cleaner. That's great. Yes.”

Phillips: “What would you say about John Ramill?”

Buckheit: “I would say, thank you, John Ramill. He's a man who's capable of thinking outside the box, looking down the road and doing what's right for his community.”

And Buckheit believed Tampa was just the beginning.

Buckheit: “We felt we had put together something that a company showed it could live with, and perhaps this could be a model for other settlements across the country that could reduce emissions by millions of tons.”

And for a time, it seemed like that might actually happen. Buckheit's office continued to launch more investigations, and a handful of companies began their own settlement talks. But even as his enforcement efforts were beginning to have some effect, the utility industry was fighting back, hoping to undermine the lawsuits by having the new source review rule changed. Their argument was that New Source Review "would repeatedly delay critical repair, replacement and efficiency projects...[and] adversely effect the reliability of the nation's power supply."

Last year, during a visit to one of the nation's largest coal-burning power plants, President Bush announced that New Source Review had been overhauled. The new rule encourages utilities to make improvements to their old plants to increase their efficiency, while relaxing the requirement to add those expensive pollution controls. the change was made in spite of a 2001 memo from former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to Vice President Dick Cheney, warning:  "we will pay a terrible political price if we undercut or walk away from the enforcement cases. It will be hard to refute the charge that we are deciding not to enforce the Clean Air Act."

While the energy industry applauded the rule change, more than a dozen state attorneys general appealed it, asking the federal courts to reinstate New Source Review as a necessary enforcement tool. Buckheit says it was the hammer that helped him forge that landmark agreement in Tampa. And John Ramil agrees.

Phillips: “Bruce Buckheit says he saw no suggestion that short of citing the company for violations and the threat of a lawsuit that these changes would have been made. Is that a fair statement?”

Ramil: “The changes at this significant a level this quickly, it's probably a fair assessment.”

Phillips: “Without that federal intervention chances are the air in Tampa would not be as clean as it is today?”

Ramil: “That's probably right.

Phillips: “What's the biggest enforcement challenge right now when it comes to air pollution?”

Buckheit: “The Bush Administration. An opportunity to reduce pollution just as we saw in Tampa is being foregone.”

Phillips: “Are you saying this administration just doesn't care about air pollution?”

Buckheit: “Yes. I'm saying this administration has decided to put the economic interests of the coal fired power plants ahead of the public interests in reducing air pollution.”

Phillips: “That's a pretty serious allegation.”

Buckheit: “Well, I was the head of the air enforcement division up until a couple weeks ago and I watched it happen.”

But are lawsuits really the most effective way to solve the nation's air quality problems? The Bush administration says there's a better way, by setting caps on emissions and creating financial incentives for companies to reduce pollution. And by allowing utilities to upgrade old plants, the administration says it's helping keep the lights on across the country.

Phillips: “As demand increases, and heaven knows we all want our microwave ovens and our video games and our computers, shouldn't utilities be given leeway to make these modifications, to make sure supply is there?”

Buckheit: “We all want the supply to be there when it's 90 degrees and you turn on the air conditioner. EPA has never opposed that at all. What we're saying here is if you want to take an old power plant and extend its life in a major capitol improvement, treat it as a new power plant with good pollution control devices.”

Before he retired last December, Buckheit was ordered to shut down further New Source Review investigations at other utilities.

Buckheit: “We had several dozen investigations.”

Phillips: “Ongoing.”

Buckheit: “Ongoing. Strong cases, where I had to tell the regional engineers and lawyers, stop.  Put your documents in the box, so that hopefully we can get back to it someday.  But otherwise, you know, stop your investigation.”

Bruce Buckheit proved with that historic agreement in Tampa that it could be done, that a coal-burning utility could change to running clean without running aground financially. The question is, can history repeat itself?

Phillips: “What would you say to Bruce Buckheit?”

Ramil: “He helped us, I think. Nudging us along. Maybe sometimes it was more of nudge than we might have liked, but that's okay. Things get done when you stretch people.”

A federal court of appeals in Washington has temporarily stayed the Bush administration's change in the New Source Review rule. The fight over its future will play out in court later this year. The EPA says it will vigorously defend the rule change.

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