Blowing in the wind Removing NOx: EPA rules target power plants, here and in Midwest, to clean up air pollution.

September 29, 1998

IT'S AN ILL wind that blows the smog-forming pollution of Midwest and Ohio Valley smokestacks into the air of Maryland and the Northeast.

While Atlantic states have spent tens of millions of dollars to reduce unhealthy smog levels, they are foiled by coal-fired power plants to the west that spew a pall of pollution into eastbound air currents.

New federal rules would reduce this pernicious interstate commerce, severely limiting nitrogen oxide output from upwind electric plants and industries.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules also require big cuts by Northeast states. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution in 22 states would drop by 28 percent in nine years. NOx from burning fossil fuels contributes to smog.

For Maryland, that will mean cutting 38 percent of NOx emissions from power plants and large industrial boilers projected by 2007. The problem is that this state has mostly older, coal-fueled power generators that have been exempt from tighter emissions standards for more modern plants.

Maryland is already acting, with a 65 percent NOx emissions cut required of state power plants next year. But it may not be sufficient.

While states may choose their plans, EPA says the cheapest way is to crack down on coal-burning plants: a cost of $1,500 per ton of NOx cut, compared with $3,400 for a ton from automobile exhausts.

Long cited as major sources of nitrogen oxide, power plants have been little regulated because of the focus on sulfur reductions, and the purported costs to consumers. With crackdowns on other major NOx sources, utilities represent the next step for cleaner air (and a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, which gets one-fourth of its nitrogen pollution from the air).

Equally important, EPA targets cheaper, dirtier coal plants in the Midwest that contribute directly to the smog-burdened areas of the Northeast, such as the Baltimore-Washington region.

Better air quality -- helping millions who suffer from respiratory problems -- depends on a common effort to take out the NOx.

Pub date 9/29/98

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