Dirty Dinosaurs: Power Plants and Pollution

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Hotline, Spring 1999

What would you guess is the single worst industrial contributor of air pollution in the U.S.? From the title, the answer is obviously power plants. They contribute nationally 66% of the sulfur dioxide emissions (SO2), 29% of nitrogen oxide emissions (NOx), 21% of mercury emissions and 36% of man made carbon dioxide emissions.1 One mythology is that the majority of air pollution is caused by automobiles. “As a single point source, the coal-fired plants are head and shoulders above the automobiles” commented Dr. Smith, Executive Director of the Tennessee Valley Energy Reform Coalition. For example, Tennessee Valley Authorities Cumberland Plant emits as much NOx as seven million cars, (not to excuse the considerable role played by automobiles in pollution).

Even though the Clean Air Act required nitrogen oxide controls and the Acid Rain Program began controlling sulfur dioxide, the Act still permitted older power plants to pollute at anywhere from 4 to 10 times the rate per unit of electricity than is permitted at newer plants. It was expected at the time of the 1970 Clean Air Act and its 1977 amendments that existing power plants would, with a life span of 25-30 years, soon retire. It would be a waste to retrofit them it was said, but most of these old dinosaurs are still running or rather belching along, many at an efficiency rate of less than 50% that of newer plants. Operating with less pollution controls is cost effective to the operator but the costs are ultimately born by the public and environment.

In the era of electricity deregulation and the emphasis on competitive costs, these old relics should not become more valuable because they have been allowed to pollute. Pennsylvania consumers need to know not only what price their energy supplier offers but at what cost to their health.

Consumers should ask what emissions are being produced from the generator of their electricity and the provider in PA should have an answer. There are also web sites for information.

The usual emissions of concern and control are nitrogen oxides which contribute to ozone formation, sulfur dioxide which contributes to acid rain and haze, and carbon dioxide which contributes to global warming.

The NOx and SOx are significant contributors to respiratory problems including asthma and other pulmonary distress. You should know, however, that there are other emissions particularly from coal fired plants. The major one is mercury, which EPA is starting to monitor in 1999. Mercury contamination (which changes to methyl mercury) in waterways has led to fish advisories in many states including Pennsylvania. Methylmercury is especially dangerous to fetuses, breast fed infants, and small children. EPA estimates that 85,000 women in the US alone are being exposed to mercury levels high enough to affect the brain development of their children.

We often think of water contamination as coming out of industrial or sewage pipes but much of it falls right out of the air. To complete this bellowing coal-fired brew, there are other metals including antimony, arsenic, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, and selenium compounds, as well seventy-nine hazardous air pollutants that are just beginning to be studied by the EPA.

It is time for the plants that slipped through the regulatory loophole to voluntarily clean up. Recognizing the problem, the EPA has started to crack down, at least on NOx. Many of the plants will be asked to reduce NOx through the new State Implementation Plans (SIP calls) ordered by EPA for 22 states. We in western Pennsylvania have heard the refrain that most of our ozone comes from upwind, and this is partially true, but Pennsylvania will be required to reduce NOx by 24% or 79,388 tons by 2003 as well. The NOx reduction requirements may stimulate some of the dinosaurs to finally shape up.

It should be noted that some plants have no SO2 controls. Others like the Conemaugh Plant near Johnstown have substantially controlled SO2 and can trade with some of the dirtier plants. Keystone West of Indiana, PA, Homer City – south of Indiana, PA, Hatfield’s Ferry – west of Uniontown, and Duquesne’s Cheswick Plant have no SO2 controls. It’s time for all utility plants to stop hiding behind an unintended, dirty loophole and be responsible to their customers by providing cleaner energy. Check out the websites or call GASP for information before you choose your electric provider – consider not only cost but blue skies and healthy lungs in the calculus.

Some good news on this topic from abroad: some Asian governments are developing policies to increase natural gas usage. As an example, China has set an official goal to more than double the use of natural gas over the next decade. To discourage the use of coal in favor of gas, the Chinese government in January of this year levied a $2.50-per-ton tax on high sulfur coal, while sparing gas from taxation.

The good news and the bad news on a topic that must be included in any discussion of power plants: nuclear plants may be closing early due to competitive pressures of electric utility deregulation, according to a new study, Stranded Nuclear Waste, authored by Synapse Energy Economics (that’s the good news). Because funding under current law assumes plants will run until their licenses expire, these economically driven plant closures would create an unfunded liability for nuclear plant decommissioning, potentially rising to 15.3 billion (that’s the bad news). Additionally, early retirement will also create an unfunded liability for long-term storage of high level nuclear waste that could reach $46.5 billion if a recent independent estimate of the total cost of the planned Yucca Mountain waste storage facility proves accurate. To darken the problem, H.R. 45, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1999, exacerbates the situation by reducing the fees paid by the industry for nuclear waste storage! That the taxpayer may get stuck with additional costs from past unwise decisions to build nuclear plants appears to be a real possibility.

by Suzanne Seppi, GASP Executive Director