Millions to Breathe Easier with Power Plant Pollution Cuts

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today proposed tighter limits on sulfur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) pollution from eastern power plants, taking corrective action to strengthen human health protections in response to a July 11, 2008 court of appeals ruling.

“Stronger action to cut power plant pollution will mean healthier, longer lives for millions of Americans,” said Vickie Patton, Environmental Defense Fund’s general counsel.   “Power plants are the nation’s single largest emitter of harmful sulfur dioxide, climate-disrupting gases, and toxic mercury, and EPA’s action is an important step in reducing the dangers from smokestack emissions.”

The EPA’s proposed new regulations will target power plant pollution that drifts across the borders of 31 eastern states and the District of Columbia. EPA says it is designed to help areas in the eastern United States meet existing national air quality health standards.

SO2 and NOx emissions discharged from eastern power plants are associated with 23,000 to 60,000 deaths, 3.1 million lost work days, and 18 million acute respiratory symptoms annually due to particulate pollution alone.

EPA’s proposal would lead to improved pollution reductions in states with high levels of power plant pollution, such as the emissions concentrated along the Ohio River Valley, expand the clean air measures to power plant emissions in Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and strengthen compliance deadlines.

Power Sector a Major Emitter. The pollution discharged from over 900 coal, gas and oil-fired units in the eastern U.S. has a cascade of serious health and environmental impacts including heart and lung disease, climatic disruption, acidic deposition in forests and lakes, and death. The power sector is the nation’s single largest source of heat-trapping gases and other airborne contaminants such as SO2 and toxic mercury.

New Health Effects Analysis Documents Harmful Impacts of Today’s Power Plant Pollution. Technical analysis prepared for Environmental Defense Fund using EPA methodologies estimates that the SO2 and NOx emissions discharged from eastern power plants are associated with over 23,000 to 60,000 deaths, 3.1 million lost work days, and 18 million acute respiratory symptoms annually due to particulate pollution alone.

CAIR Made Progress in Capping Pollution Under “Good Neighbor” Protections. In 2005, EPA finalized the Clean Air Interstate Rule under the Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” protections, capping and reducing the smokestack pollution transported downwind across the eastern U.S. In 2009, the first year of the NOx cap, emissions were 43 percent (490,000 tons) lower than predicted based on a linear extrapolation of past emissions and 59 percent (960,000 tons) lower than the program’s 2003 baseline. A significant drop in SO2 emissions also occurred in 2009, in anticipation of the program’s 2010 SO2 compliance deadline.

Costly Health Impacts. Reducing the emissions from power plants is one of the single most important and cost-effective measures to protect human health and the environment. The monetized health harms associated with today’s pollution levels from eastern power plants exceed $200 billion annually.

Corrective Legal Action. On July 11, 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. overturned and vacated the Clean Air Interstate Rule finding serious deficiencies including EPA’s failure to calibrate the emissions mitigation in the upwind state with its downwind impacts, the Agency’s failure to durably maintain the health-based air quality standards in downwind states suffering from upwind pollution, and the failure to align the rule’s emissions reduction deadlines in upwind states with the statute’s deadlines for downwind states to achieve healthy air pollution levels. On December 23, 2008, the court reinstated the Clean Air Interstate Rule while EPA undertook corrective action consistent with the court’s July 2008 opinion. Judge Judith Rogers’ concurring opinion reasoned that a remand rather than a vacatur was the proper remedy because “the rule has become so intertwined with the regulatory scheme that its vacatur would sacrifice clear benefits to public health and the environment while EPA fixes the rule.”

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