October 23, 2014

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Decades After Clear Air Act, Most Smokestacks Still Lack Scrubbers

Industry that resists new climate change rules sometimes lacks long-encouraged pollution controls, too

Even as one of the largest utilities in the world, American Electric Power, signaled stepped-up defiance to proposed limits by the Environmental Protection Agency on hazardous emissions from coal-fired power plants, a new government study shows that half of all boilers attached to tall smokestacks across the country lack scrubbers encouraged by Clear Air Act amendments decades ago.

Using scrubbers on smokestacks is an old idea for reducing emission of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. A set of amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1977 encouraged use of pollution control equipment over so-called dispersion techniques – building tall smokestacks that would release air pollutants high into the atmosphere to protect local air quality.

But such stacks, often rising 500 feet or higher, also increase the distance pollutants travel and can harm the environment far downwind.

The Government Accountability Office found that 56 percent of boilers attached to stall stacks lacked scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide, while 63 percent lacked controls after burning that would capture nitrogen oxides. Some stacks exceed height limitations, as well.

In other words, despite greater use of pollution controls, the GAO said, at many plants utilities are still spewing pollutants without controls into the skies.

Attempts by the EPA to rein in emissions from coal-fired plants has met with stiff resistance by industry and by many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

American Electric Power, which has vowed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions , on Thursday warned that the high costs of complying with the EPA’s new limits would cut into profits, cost jobs, and impair local economies while increasing electric bills. The company said it would have no choice but to shutter five of its coal-fired plants in Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

“We support regulations that achieve long-term environmental benefits while protecting customers, the economy, and the reliability of the electric grid,” AEP chairman Michael Morris said in a statement. “but the cumulative impacts of the EPA’s current regulatory path have been vastly underestimated, particularly in Midwest states dependent on coal to fuel their economies.”

In April, the Tennessee Valley Authority said it would retire 18 older coal-fired generation units at three power plants, but struck a less defiant tone . The utility said it intended to become “one of the nation’s leading providers of low-cost and cleaner energy by 2020.”

The EPA estimates its proposal will create $59 billion in benefits each year while saving 17,000 lives. It estimates a cost of nearly $11 billion – and predicts the creation of 9,000 long-term utility jobs. 

Reprinted by Permission © 2013, The Center for Public Integrity®. All Rights Reserved.

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About this Author

Epstein has more than two decades of Washington-based investigative reporting experience and spent much of his career at Business Week and The Plain Dealer. He has covered topics from politics and drug companies to cyber-espionage and the insurance industry. Epstein’s stories on lending practices that ensnare poor and unsophisticated borrowers led to changes in the practices of global microfinance. Laurels he has won or shared include the Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism; the SPJ investigative reporting award; the White House...

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