Obama Administration Targets Cross-State Pollution

What do you do when your hometown has been polluted by an upwind power plant, if that plant is located across the state line and regulated largely be elected officials over whom you have no influence?  For millions of Americans this is more than a theoretical question.  In fact an estimated 240 million US residents live in cities seriously polluted by smokestacks from power plants in other states. 

Thanks to a rule announced by the US Environmental Protection Agency Thursday, relief may be coming to communities impacted by pollution sources over which they have no immediate control.  The new regulation is the first in a series of major pollution rules to be rolled out by the agency this summer and fall.

On Thursday morning the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its long-awaited Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which will require states to reduce smog and soot pollution that causes sickness and death in other states located downwind.  The regulation will fulfill the EPA’s responsibility to enforce the so-called “Good Neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act, meant to limit pollution that crosses state lines. 

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will also replace a weaker rule developed by the Bush administration EPA in 2005, which the US Circuit Court for Washington, DC deemed did not fulfill requirements of the Clean Air Act.  The new rule represents the Obama administration’s attempt to comply with Clean Air Act mandates.  According to the EPA, it will also prevent as many as 34,000 premature deaths and 400,000 cases of aggravated asthma per year.

“No community should have to bear the burden of another community’s polluters, or be powerless to prevent air pollution that leads to asthma, heart attacks and other harmful illnesses,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.  “These Clean Air Act safeguards will help protect the health of millions of Americans and save lives by preventing smog and soot pollution from traveling hundreds of miles and contaminating the air they breathe.”

The rule targets sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides, two pollutants that contribute to formation of soot and smog.  The two compounds also cause heart disease, asthma, and other breathing problems in hundreds of thousands of people who live downwind of power plants.  The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule requires these plants to begin cutting emissions in 2012.  By 2014, sulfur dioxide will be reduced by 73% and nitrous oxides by 54%. 

The new rule will affect mainly states in the eastern US, where the bulk of the country’s dirty power plants are located and where wind currents easily carry pollution from one state to another.  Many states will receive relief from upwind pollution sources even as they are required to clean up their own dirty power plants to alleviate communities downwind from them. 

For example, air quality in Pennsylvania is currently affected by nineteen out-of-state pollution sources that will be reduced by the new rule, including major power plants in Ohio that pollute the Pittsburgh area.  However Pennsylvania will itself be required to clean up twelve of its own polluters that cause air quality problems in other states. 

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule represents the culmination of a months-long process during which the EPA gathered input on a proposed draft rule and accepted comments from the public.  While industry groups pushed for a weak standard that would minimize the need for new pollution controls, health and environmental organizations advocated science-based standards that would dramatically reduce cases of illness.  The EPA also had to act in the knowledge that any rule too weak to fulfill Clean Air Act requirements would likely get thrown out in court. 

Hot on the heels of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, this fall the EPA will announce other Clean Air Act rules the include the nation’s first standard limiting mercury emissions from power plants, as well as stricter fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.  The series of new rules will help bring the Clean Air Act up-to-date with modern times, and address some of those tricky questions like what you can do when a power plant across the state line is polluting your community with smog.  

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/trippchicago/1473571763/

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