The ugly secret: An NPR study indicates that coal-fired power plants produce half of the US’ electricity and most of its air pollution, including mercury contamination and carbon dioxide emissions.
Most of country’s 420 coal-fired power plants still lack advanced pollution controls, even though the equipment to clean up their hazardous exhausts has been widely available for many years, according to Environmental Protection Agency officials.
Serious Health Hazards
The federal government has long known that the plants harm public health, but in recent years, science has shown that they are deadlier than Congress realized when it adopted major air-pollution laws.
The EPA now estimates that each year, tens of thousands of older Americans die early from heart or lung failure, and younger Americans suffer asthma attacks, as a result of tiny particles or soot from power plants. Both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted by the plants form fine particles or soot.
Exhausts from coal-fired power plants also create haze, which mars scenic views, and cause acid rain, which kills trees and pollutes streams. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest emitters of sulfur dioxide and major emitters of nitrogen oxides.
A loophole in the 1970 Clean Air Act allows older plants to avoid installing advanced pollution controls that would slash these deadly emissions.
The Clinton administration tried to close the loophole by enforcing a long-ignored provision of the act: It requires plant owners to install advanced pollution controls if they modify or expand their plant. The EPA and states have been fighting power companies in court over the issue.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s EPA rewrote Clean Air Act regulations to favor the industry’s interpretation. But the change that would have been most effective in helping industry avoid installing expensive pollution controls on old coal-burning power plants was blocked by a federal court in March.
A Widespread Pollution Problem
Coal-fired power plants supply half of the nation’s electricity. In 2004, two-thirds of this power came from plants without scrubbers, devices that can remove up to 98 percent of sulfur dioxide from power-plant emissions, according to a recent EPA analysis.
Even more of this power was produced without the advanced controls that can strip 90-95 percent of the nitrogen oxides form the exhausts.
Recognizing the problem, the Bush administration put in place new regulations to force coal-fired power plants in the 28 states in the eastern half of the country to reduce emissions.
The system sets pollution caps for emissions for all the plants. It allows plants that reduce pollution faster to sell "pollution credits" to plants that are slower to clean up.
A Long Way to Clean Up
Still, by 2010, only 40 percent of the electricity generated with coal will be from plants with advanced controls for nitrogen oxides; less than half of it will be from plants with scrubbers, according to the EPA analysis. Ten years later, more than 40 percent still will come from plants without advanced controls for nitrogen oxides, and more than a quarter from plants that lack scrubbers.
Environmentalists say the EPA’s analysis shows that the Bush administration’s approach is too slow to clean up plants that so clearly threaten Americans’ health.
Too Many Exempt Plants?
…in 2020, 68 percent of the 1,041 total coal-fired, electric-generating units in the eastern half of the U.S. still will lack scrubbers or advanced nitrogen oxides controls.
EPA officials stressed that many of the power plants that haven’t installed scrubbers or advanced controls for nitrogen oxides have cut pollution in other ways. Some have switched to coal that contains less sulfur. Others have installed pollution-control equipment, but it’s less effective than scrubbers or advanced controls for nitrogen oxides.
Other Harmful Emissions Remain Unregulated
The federal government has done even less to control two other harmful air emissions from power plants: mercury, which falls into waterways and ends up in fish that people eat; and carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.
Coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury air pollution, and one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide. Last year, the EPA announced a plan to reduce mercury emissions, but it wouldn’t require advanced technology to cut the emissions for more than a decade. The federal government does not regulate carbon dioxide emissions.