New EPA Rule Targets Interstate Air Pollution from Coal-Fired Power Plants

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced yesterday a new Cross-State Air Pollution Rule to improve air quality for 240 million Americans by significantly reducing harmful smokestack emissions produced outside of their own state borders.

Specifically targeted are sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emitted by coal-fired power plants and transported hundreds of miles by wind and weather. Once aloft, these pollutants react with the atmosphere to create ground-level ozone (smog) and fine particle soot linked to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

In Maryland, for example, half or more of the pollutants that produce summertime smog originate in other states, coming from as far away as Michigan, Indiana, New York and North Carolina, and contributing to the number of air quality advisories due to ozone.

According to the EPA, the new standards will prevent up to 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 19,000 cases of acute bronchitis, 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million sick days a year beginning in 2014. The resultant savings in health care costs have been estimated anywhere between $20 – 300 billion per year, far exceeding the $1 billion annual cost of compliance.

Utilities in 28 states east of the Rocky Mountains will be subject to the new standards, which, combined with other state and federal efforts, aim to reduce SO2 emissions by 73 percent from 2005 levels, and NOx emissions by 54 percent. All reductions can be achieved using existing technology.

Many power plants covered by the rule have already made substantial investments in clean air technologies, either voluntarily or to comply with state regulations, and will be minimally affected. The greatest impact will be in states such as Texas that have resisted tighter controls on coal-fired utilities, where costs of retrofitting will be higher and some older plants will be forced to close.

While the new standards fall short of addressing carbon emissions associated with global warming, they are expected to have a significant, positive environmental impact on eastern U.S. forests and waterways by reducing the two major causes of acid rain — SO2 and NOx emissions.

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