EPA Wants Dramatic Cuts in Air Emissions from Power Plants

Dec. 5, 2003
The EPA is proposing a new rule the "Interstate Air Quality Rule" that would require coal-burning power plants to upgrade their facilities and make emission cuts of over 50 percent to reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

This announcement is in addition to agency proposals to reduce mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants. Taken together, these rules will require utilities to spend tens of billions of dollars to reduce the emissions of these pollutants.

"These actions are the largest single investment in any clean air program in history," said EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. "Together, these programs represent a historic achievement in meeting our new, more stringent national air quality standards and reducing harmful mercury emissions."

The rules focus on states that significantly contribute to ozone and fine particle pollution in the Eastern United States and are primarily aimed at toxins that travel. These rules would reduce power plant emissions in two phases: sulfur dioxide emissions would drop by 3.7 million tons by 2010 (a cut of approximately 40 percent from current levels) and by another 2.3 million tons when the rules are fully implemented after 2015 (a total cut of nearly 70 percent from today's levels). NOx emissions would be cut by 1.4 million tons by 2010 and by a total of 1.7 million tons by 2015 (a reduction of approximately 50 percent from today's levels in the 30 states covered under the rules). Cumulatively, the rules will eliminate approximately 34 million tons of SO2 and NOx emissions between now and 2015 beyond the reductions achieved under current programs. Moreover, emissions will be permanently capped and cannot increase.

Proposed mercury rules would focus on coal-fired power plants primarily; the proposed cap-and-trade alternative would cut mercury emissions to 15 tons when fully implemented after 2018, a reduction of 70 percent from current levels.

The complete plan will consist of a set of new rules to cut the long-range transport of SO2 and Nox, which can be transported on the wind, causing environmental and health problems hundreds of miles away. SO2 and NOx emissions contribute to the formation of fine particles, which can pose serious health risks, especially for people with heart or lung disease (including asthma) and older adults and children. NOx emissions also contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, which can irritate the respiratory system, aggravate asthma, reduce lung capacity and increase people's susceptibility to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis.

Not everyone is happy with the rule changes. Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, said the proposal will allow industry "to pollute too much for too long.

EPA will formally propose the Interstate Air Quality Rule in later this month and then ask public comment. A final rule is planned for 2005.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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