Coal Dirt Cheap


A new Environmental Protection Agency rule, signed by acting administrator Marianne Horinko on August 27, condemns 19,000 Americans a year to premature death, including more than a thousand New Yorkers. The rule, a revision of the 1977 “new source review” provision, allows the nation’s most polluting power plants to upgrade equipment without implementing new emission-control measures. Scientists and officials have criticized it as the biggest rollback in the history of the Clean Air Act, saying it could boost pollution in New York City and around the country, costing billions and threatening the health of many Americans.

In 1970, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act, scientists knew that high concentrations of particles in the air caused a spike in death rates, but in subsequent decades studies have linked such air pollution, even at lower levels, to many health problems, including asthma attacks, heart and lung disease, and cancer. The act has helped cut levels of several common air pollutants by a quarter in the last 30 years, but contamination from power plants alone still causes 30,000 premature deaths, 20,000 respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations, and 600,000 asthma attacks annually, according to calculations by Abt Associates, the firm the EPA uses to assess the effects of regulations.

The new regulation will “definitely mean more pollution in our state,” said Judith Enck, policy advisor to state attorney general Eliot Spitzer. On particularly smoggy days more than 50 percent of certain key pollutants in the city’s air comes from Midwest power plants—many of which will be allowed to make emission-boosting renovations under the new regulation. Spitzer, along with environmental groups and others, has pledged to sue, alleging that the new regulation is illegal.

New York State is home to 19 affected plants, one of which is in Astoria, Queens. Because many industrial facilities and power plants are in low-income areas, the rule will likely have a disproportionate impact in such neighborhoods, says Enck. Air pollution has been cited as one cause of skyrocketing asthma rates in Harlem; according to recent surveys, the condition afflicts 25 percent of local children.

Ninety-eight percent of all sulfur dioxide (commonly called soot) emitted by power plants, as well as 92 percent of nitrogen oxide (which causes smog), is spewed by 540 fossil-fuel power plants that generate just over half of the country’s energy. Clean air regulations implemented in 1977 required all new plants to install the best pollution-control mechanisms available, but coal-fired plants built before that date were exempt from the requirement unless they undertook renovations that would increase emissions.

When the regulation was passed, the average life span of a power plant was 30 to 40 years, said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental advocacy group. But because the old, exempt plants are cheaper for power companies to operate, utilities are keeping them online longer—sometimes performing illegal maintenance. The Bush administration’s new rule would allow companies to replace old parts at an estimated 17,000 industrial facilities with new ones, for example replacing a boiler from the ’60s with the most modern model, as long as the parts are equivalent and don’t cost more than 20 percent of the price of replacing the entire power-generating unit.

“The whole purpose of overhauling these facilities is so that they can run them longer and harder, which will increase pollution,” said Schneider. The 20 percent limit is misleading, he adds, because it is per project, so in the worst-case scenario an exempt power generator could be entirely renovated by dividing up the renovation into six projects, each costing 17 percent of the total.

From the perspective of the EPA and industry representatives, the goal of the new rule is to “make plants more efficient, more reliable and safer,” said Bill Wehrum, counsel to the assistant administrator for air at EPA. Wehrum stated that the rule will have little or no impact on emissions, and asserts that the old rule discouraged companies from maintaining old power plants. But even Wehrum admits that the new rule provides no incentive to install pollution control measures that make plants more expensive to run without boosting energy output. Other parts of the Clean Air Act are intended to encourage pollution reductions, he said.

The General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said in an independent report last month that the EPA lacked hard data to back up similar revisions of clean air rules. Additional evidence undermines the EPA’s position on the newest rule. The Justice Department, along with a coalition of states and environmental groups, won the first of 51 court cases filed against coal-fired power plants. A federal judge in Ohio ruled that FirstEnergy’s Ohio Edison violated the Clean Air Act with renovations that led to a jump in emissions. Under the new rule, all but one of those modifications would be allowed. The Clean Air Task Force commissioned an Abt report estimating that emissions from the plants being sued kill approximately 550 New Yorkers each year.

“These older plants have been putting out more and more energy because they are so much cheaper to operate, but if you look at the holistic picture, their cost is quite high because pollution contributes to illness, hospital admissions, and death,” said George Thurston, an associate professor of environmental medicine at NYU School of Medicine and an author of several major studies on the health effects of air pollution.

Government studies indicate that energy from older plants is more pricey than it seems. In 2000, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a branch of the Department of Energy, reported that fully implementing the original “new source review” program by 2020 would keep 7 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 2.4 million tons of nitrogen oxide out of the air. A report by Abt Associates estimated that the reduced pollution would result in 19,000 fewer premature deaths and would save about $150 billion each year. In contrast, the EIA estimated the cost of installing pollution control devices at $73 billion over 20 years and said the increase in energy prices would be small.

Wehrum maintains that existing regulations, for example the Clean Air Act acid rain program, are doing enough to reduce air pollution. But that program has failed so far to remedy some of the most dramatic damage caused by acid rain. A 2001 study by the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, a non-profit that funds ecological research, found that more than a third of all lakes in the Adirondack Park region are acidic, some to the point that they cannot support fish. The study estimated that even if we cut sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants by as much as 80 percent, it will still take 20 to 25 years to resuscitate a majority of affected lakes and streams. The EIA study projected that the previous new source review program could have achieved such cuts by 2020.

Only a congressional amendment to the Clean Air Act or a successful lawsuit can overturn the new rule. In any case, it will likely take at least two years before a decision is handed down. Unless litigants win a stay, keeping the old rule in effect until the courts decide the new suit, power companies can capitalize on the delay to make repairs, squeeze more juice, and spew more smoke from dirty power plants.