Old power plants, clean air dilemma

Pollution: Environmentalists fear that President Bush will aggravate air problems in Eastern states such as Maryland by phasing out emissions regulation in the Midwest.

September 07, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BRILLIANT, Ohio - A faint yellow gas wafts from smokestacks along the Ohio River. It is full of hazardous pollutants, which is nothing new here in the core of the industrial Midwest, a gritty region built on manufacturing and heavy industry and accustomed to the ill effects.

But 300 miles and a world away in Washington, this gas, how far it travels in the wind and whom it harms are at the heart of an intensifying fight over how to generate power while still protecting the environment.

For both sides, there is this new reality: George W. Bush has made energy production a centerpiece of his presidency.

And his push for coal burning and oil drilling often runs smack into efforts to preserve natural resources and keep the air clean.

The smokestacks here are part of the Cardinal power plant, a mammoth 500-acre facility that burns coal to churn out electricity for the Eastern United States.

Like many aging coal-fired plants in the Midwest and South, it was built decades ago - before modern pollution controls were developed.

Scientists say pollutants from Cardinal's stacks blow east and contribute to dangerous pollution in such faraway cities as Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

That's why Eastern states, including Maryland, joined with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 and 2000 to sue Cardinal and other plants to try to force them to clean up.

Then, President Bill Clinton was overseeing the EPA. Now, Bush, as part of his comprehensive energy plan, has vowed to lift obstacles that impede electricity production - including some lawsuits or regulations that are intended to protect the environment.

As part of his effort to boost the nation's power supply, the president is considering dropping the EPA's lawsuits against Cardinal and 50 other plants.

Doing so, Maryland officials warn, would weaken the ability of states to fight coal-generated pollution.

"This is very important," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. Marylanders, he said, "have made enormous sacrifices to clean up our environment, and for there to be a national policy that jeopardizes that would be very upsetting."

New control strategy

The Bush-led EPA is set to unveil a pollution-control strategy this month.

It is expected to begin phasing out a regulation under the Clean Air Act that some states have used to crack down on heavy-polluting coal plants.

"Coal presents an environmental challenge," the president acknowledged in May, when he introduced his broad energy initiative.

But Bush also said: "More than half of the electricity generated in America today comes from coal. If we were not blessed with this natural resource, we would face even greater shortages and higher prices today."

The regulation that the Bush administration is expected to target in the Clean Air Act is known by the term "new source review."

It requires new power plants to install the most modern pollution controls. But older power plants need not update their pollution controls until they undergo renovations that boost output.

So if they don't renovate, older plants such as Cardinal can go on polluting, exempt from the clean air rules of new source review.

Under Clinton, the EPA tried to toughen new source review, arguing that many aging plants defied the law for years by undergoing renovations but failing to upgrade their pollution controls.

"New source review can be improved, but it should not be replaced," said William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, which works with states and localities to enforce environmental laws.

"It may be the least sexy but most important provision in the Clean Air Act."

Bush has insisted that his policies will clean up the air. But he has a sharply different view of new source review. He argues that it might hinder energy output at some of the nation's oldest - but still most productive - plants.

Senior EPA officials in the new administration concede that their new pollution-control plan will likely phase out new source review. But they insist that the plan will include tough emissions standards that would force all power plants to curb their pollution to record low levels over the next decade.

Better results promised

"Our top priority is protecting public health and the environment," Bush's EPA administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, said last month.

She promised "an ambitious proposal that will reduce air pollution from power plants significantly more than the existing system."

Environmentalists complain, however, that Bush's plan will likely give the industry too much leeway. For example, they say, certain plants could continue polluting for several years, if the industry found it cheaper to clean up other power plants first.

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