Pennsylvania’s Power Plants Ranked Worst in Nation

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Hotline, Spring 2000

Pennsylvania’s power plants ranked worst in the nation for releases of mercury pollution, 2nd worst for emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2); 6th worst for carbon dioxide and 9th worst for nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution.

The report, “Lethal Legacy: The Dirty Truth About the Nation’s Most Polluting Power Plants,” documents the enormous amount of air pollution emitted by the nation’s 594 dirtiest power plants. This report, created by US PIRG Education Fund, was co-released by Penn PIRG, GASP and Penn Future on April 13. Following are comments by GASP at the press conference.

The Coal Addiction

  • Coal Fired Power Plants are the largest industrial source of NOx (nitrogen oxides) emissions, a major precursor to ground level ozone producing about 23% of the nations total amount. In the Allegheny County area, we are in non-attainment for ozone and eligible for bump-up to a more serious category which would require area restrictions on growth. On high smog days, children with asthma are 40% more likely to suffer asthma attacks compared to days with average pollution levels.
  • Coal fired power plants are by far the largest source of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) which is a precursor to acid rain and sulfates that form from 30% to 40% of the particulates that contribute to haze. EPA estimates that tens of thousands of lives are cut short each year in the U.S. due to fine particulate pollution. Acid rain is a problem that is both severe and widespread in PA said William Sharpe, professor of forest hydrology at Penn State University. Available long term soils and fisheries data are evidence that the problem is a big concern.

    While there are standards surrounding these two emissions, there are no standards for two other major emissions from power plants, mercury and carbon dioxide.

  • Pennsylvania ranks number one with the highest power plant mercury (Hg) pollution in 1998 (emitting 9161 lbs.) and 95% was from plants primarily fueled by coal. The EPA estimates that about 15 percent of the total emissions of metals (e.g. mercury, nickel, chromium, cadmium, and arsenic) will deposit within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant (EPA, 1998). Coal and oil burning Power Plants contribute about 32% of the mercury pollution in the U.S.
  • Additionally, power plants are the largest industrial source of CO2 (carbon dioxide) which causes global warming.

    Damage from these emissions is not limited to human health conditions, there is also serious environmental destruction.. A seven-year study by the U.S. EPA and the USDA concluded that ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are the most damaging air pollutants. Ground level ozone is the most damaging to crops. In experiments, increasing ozone concentrations from .04 ppm to .09 ppm reduced yields of crops dramatically. For corn, the loss went from 1 percent at .04 ppm to 13 percent at .09 ppm, for soybeans, from 7 percent to 31 percent, and for wheat from 4 percent to 27 percent.

    Pennsylvania ranks third in U.S. states for number of coal fired power plants and we find ourselves in the top 10 for emissions of NOx, SO2, Hg and CO2. Clearly not all of PA air quality problems come from upwind states as is often stated. To some degree adding pollution control devices is like plugging up a leaky dike. One is never done with the problem. Solving a problem here causes another problem there. Can we control mercury? Someone will tell us yes, it can be done. Then where are we going to put that “controlled mercury”? Back in abandoned mines contaminating our drinking water? And, at what real cost?

    Basically coal is a dirty fuel yet we continue to promote its use in the state regardless of the fact that employment in the industry is greatly reduced, with machinery doing much of the work. All this support and protection, so up to sixty percent of the energy burned can go up a stack or through a cooling tower as wasted heat.

    For these reasons, GASP believes a utility plant should have a cut off age where it must move to cleaner fuels. Legislation pending in Congress (HR 2900, “The Clean Smokestacks Act of 1999”) would set tough nationwide caps for all four pollutants mentioned in the report. In addition, the Clean Smokestacks Act would require each older plant to begin meeting modern air quality standards after 30 years of operation.. There should, as well, be requirements for all utility companies operating in Pennsylvania to create some renewable energy generators or programs that would result in personal consumer use of renewable energy.

    Just because an industry can legally get away with abuse, does not mean it should. Its time for the utilities to stop throwing their weight around with legal challenges and politicking and its past time for the government to get serious with a meaningful energy strategy that will clean up these belching behemoths in the midst of all our communities. The technologies are there, only the joint vision to be the best we can be is missing.

    by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director