Cleaner air on the horizon

Cleaner air on the horizon

July 14th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Environmental Protection Agency's new rule requiring non-complying electric utilities in more than two dozen eastern states to sharply curb their enormous emissions of the two most harmful pollutants spewed by dirty coal-fire plants by 2012 is welcome and long overdue. Millions of tons of the target pollutants, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, would be scrubbed and kept from release to the air under the rule. As a result, air quality and respiratory health would improve dramatically for some 240 million Americans who are now harmed by the vast, wind-transported pollution from dirty coal-fired plants.

Cleaner air resulting from the rule, the EPA calculates, would prevent approximately 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 non-fatal heart attacks and hundreds of thousands of cases of respiratory diseases like asthma, chronic pulmonary obstruction and forms of bronchitis. The agency estimates the value of health and other environmental benefits would range from $120 billion to $280 billion by 2014.

The ruling should not be as much of a financial factor for TVA and a group of other power producers that previously would have been effected by the mandate, but have since moved to meet the standard. TVA's board, for example, was recently persuaded by CEO Tom Kilgore to finally adopt a plan to shut down its dirtiest old coal-fired units and to install, at last, smoke-stack scrubbers and catalytic converter technologies on the non-complying plants that it intends to keep using.

Some other dirty eastern utilities, however, immediately criticized the rule as attempting to accomplish too much, too soon. Their response is blatant propaganda and entirely self-serving.

In fact, the EPA's latest rule is actually a long-delayed response to the 1977 amendments of the 1970 Clean Air Act. The 1970 act ordered new power plants to use the best available technology to reduce the enormous emissions that produced health-damaging, plant-killing smog, ground-level ozone and acid rain and fog, especially in the 27 eastern states with the oldest, dirtiest coal-burning plants. But the act also grandfathered in the existing dirty plants on the theory that they would eventually be replaced as their boilers and furnaces wore out.

A few years later, Congress realized it had been duped by electric utilities, which could continually overhaul their dirty plants without meeting Clean Air Act rules. The 1977 amendment sought to close that loophole with a "new source review" rule for overhauled plants. But it didn't issue regulations to implement that standard until the 1990s. Then the electric industry fought the new-source review rules until George W. Bush took office. He immediately obliged their lobby by arbitrarily substituting a weak, movable 2018 deadline in place of the 1977 amendments.

In short, the dirtiest sector of the electric utility industry has deliberately stalled on meeting clean air rules for 35 years. Even now, only its reprobate members complain about meeting clean air rules, never mind the impact cost of the pollution shifted to the general public downwind of their smokestacks.

Most power companies, like those that joined the Clean Energy Group, have long since complied with the law. Americans across the eastern seaboard, however, have continued to suffer the health and crop-damaging consequences of wind-transported pollution from dirty utilities in Ohio Valley and Southern states.

The new EPA rule, known as the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, should finally force an end to the pollution emitted by the utilities that have long flouted the Clean Air Act and disregarded the vast consequences to public and environmental health. It can't take effect too soon.