Downwind relief

October 10, 2007

Nearly four decades late, a Midwest utility company that's been spewing dangerous pollutants toward Maryland and other downwind states - sickening humans, poisoning national parks and speeding the demise of the Chesapeake Bay - has agreed to clean up its act and make restitution.

Celebrations of the landmark $4.6 billion settlement by Ohio-based American Electric Power announced yesterday have to be tempered, though, by lament that it was so long in coming, and that so much irreparable damage was done during the years of dodge and stall encouraged by President Bush.

Even so, the federal regulators, eight states and a dozen environmental groups that filed suit in 1999 against AEP and other utility companies for ducking their responsibilities under the 1970 Clean Air Act deserve a moment to savor a historic victory before rejoining the larger campaign for healthy air.

The Clean Air Act set limits for the first time on the smokestack emissions of nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide, byproducts of coal burning that contribute to soot, smog and acid rain with ill effects for people and the environment. But the law did not require scrubbers and other equipment necessary to meet those standards to be installed in existing plants until they were expanded or upgraded.

Yesterday's settlement, while not an admission by AEP that it had violated federal law, was nonetheless an acknowledgment that it couldn't get away any longer with putting off the modernization of the 16 coal-fired plants in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia that were cited in the lawsuit.

President Bush, in a 2003 bid to encourage greater power production at minimal cost, tried to grant the plants an indefinite exemption, but so far that has been blocked in court.

The legal struggle continues on other fronts as well, but for Maryland, the settlement represents at least a partial closing of the circle: The state moved last year to tighten pollution controls on utility plants within its borders, and now Maryland has been promised relief from wind blowing in from the west, as well.

What's more, $3 million of AEP's restitution payment has been designated specifically for sorely needed efforts to remove nitrogen from the Chesapeake Bay, where it feeds the algae that choke out other life.

So while there are many battles ahead - not the least over carbon dioxide that AEP and other power companies send into the atmosphere, making them major contributors to global warming - winning this one was a breath of fresh air.

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