EPA orders smog and soot reductions from power plants

Friday, March 11, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration on Thursday ordered reductions in smog and soot pollution across 28 states in the East, South and Midwest with the goal of making the air cleaner to breathe for people downwind of coal-burning power plants.

Consumers who get electricity from the companies' plants can expect their monthly power bills to increase eventually by up to $1 to pay for the changes.

The Environmental Protection Agency's new regulations set pollution quotas for 28 states and the District of Columbia on smog-forming nitrogen oxides and soot-producing sulfur dioxide. Most of the states are east of the Mississippi River.

The agency envisions that the clean air rule will prevent 17,000 premature deaths and 700,000 cases annually of bronchitis, asthma and other respiratory ailments, while also improving the air in parks and forests.

The rule "will result in the largest pollution reductions and health benefits of any air rule in more than a decade," said Stephen Johnson, the EPA's acting administrator and President Bush's nominee to be the agency's full-time chief.

EPA officials estimate that achieving the pollution cuts will end up costing about $4 billion a year, but that the benefits will be much greater; for example, $85 billion annually from improved health among people downwind. The benefits to outdoor visibility were put at $2 billion a year.

By 2015, nitrogen oxide pollution will have to be reduced by 1.9 million tons annually, or 61 percent below 2003 levels. Sulfur dioxide pollution must drop by 5.4 million tons, a 57 percent reduction.

Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense, an advocacy and research group that has championed the new regulations, said the EPA was taking "the biggest step in a decade" to cut smog and soot from power plant smokestacks and help millions of people breathe easier.

Other environmental groups and some state attorneys general were less enthusiastic.

"We need the reductions sooner to achieve clean air for our citizens as is required by the Clean Air Act," said Peter Lehner, environmental protection chief in the New York attorney general's office.

John Walke, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA is at least recognizing that power plant pollution is a threat to public health and that utilities and plant owners have the money to clean it up.

"Unfortunately, under today's rule, more than 31 million Americans still will be breathing unsafe levels of deadly soot and asthma-inducing smog a decade from now," he said.

The EPA said 474 counties now have too much smog and 224 counties have too much soot, fine particles of pollution that are 30 times smaller than human hair.

It is up to states to decide how best to achieve those reductions. But the rule envisions requiring power plants to install new scrubbers for sulfur dioxide or chemical processes for nitrogen oxides as the least costly way. Plant operators are allowed, under a trading system, to buy pollution allowances from other plants that did more in cutting emissions than was required.

Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the power industry's Edison Electric Institute, said the exact requirements depend on decisions not yet made by the EPA and states. But he said market trading would help lessen costs for consumers.

The regulations had competed with a legislative plan Bush hoped would accomplish some of the same things -- reduced smog and soot pollution. But the regulations set deadlines consistent with the Clean Air Act.

Bush's legislative plan would have given power plants more time to reduce air pollution and limited states' tools for addressing the local impact, according to the Congressional Research Service. But it suffered a major setback Wednesday when a Republican-controlled Senate committee rejected it.

States affected by the new regulations are Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The EPA next week plans to issue the nation's first regulations for reducing emission of toxic mercury from power plants.

On the Net:

Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/interstateairquality

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