Tennessee and Georgia are among 31 states in the eastern United States that will be required to significantly reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, both smog-making compounds.
Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's newest proposal, sulfur dioxide emissions must be reduced by 71 percent and nitrogen oxide by 52 percent by 2014.
If EPA's plan to tighten restrictions on pollution from coal-burning power plants becomes the new standard, Chattanooga air alerts would become far less common, according to Bob Colby, head of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau.
"That's huge," Mr. Colby said Tuesday after the EPA's Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for air and radiation, announced the plan.
"I'm looking forward to what the monitors say," Mr. Colby said, noting that much of the region's air problems are carried by wind from coal plants in Georgia and Alabama. "That means we will not have as many orange and red alert days."
EPA predicts the regulation, known as the Clean Air Interstate Rule, would prevent about 14,000 to 36,000 premature deaths a year -- 400 to 2,000 in each state of Tennessee and Georgia. Both states also adversely affect air quality to their northeast, EPA modeling shows.
Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman Scott Brooks said TVA has 11 coal-fired power plants with 59 generating units, and the agency has spent more than $5.3 billion to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 91 percent since 1977 and nitrogen oxide emissions by 89 percent since 1995.
"TVA is reviewing this proposed rule to determine if additional emission controls are necessary" beyond the agency's own future control plans, Mr. Brooks said Tuesday.
As of now, only 10 of TVA's generating units at the utility's plants have scrubbers, but Mr. Scott said the other units all either have some other type of pollution control or burn low-sulfur coal.
Officials with Southern Co. in Georgia, which also owns coal-burning plants, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
BY THE NUMBERS
600 -- Coal plants in the U.S.
15 -- Coal plants in Georgia
11 -- Coal plants in Alabama
11 -- Coal plants in Tennessee
Industry groups said the proposed rule will boost power prices or force many older coal-fired power plants to be closed.
Jeff Holmstead, a former George W. Bush administration EPA official who authored an earlier interstate emissions rule, said it was not clear whether utilities will be able meet the new standards while still providing affordable and reliable electric power.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, however, said the rule would improve air quality and public health from New England to Florida and from Texas to Minnesota.
The reductions should save more than $120 billion in avoided health costs and sick days, as well as save thousands of lives each year, and far outweighing the estimated $2.8 billion cost of compliance in 2014, she said.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called Tuesday's announcement "a good first step" but one that is "too regional, too complicated and too weak to be a permanent solution for public health and for the certainty and flexibility that utilities need to keep electric rates down."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...