Soot Pollution

soot-pollution-environmental-protection-agency-standardsTo put it simply, soot pollution is deadly. Soot is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, in particular coal. It comes from burning coal for electricity or industrial fuel, manufacturing, oil refining, and motor vehicles.  It affects the health of families and communities, some of which are at a higher risk than others. Soot has been a danger to human health and the health of the environment for years. The United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit identified the deficiencies in soot regulation years ago. Standards are long overdue.  For years soot has been released into the air and can be carried thousands of miles away from the initial source of pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency has experienced a series of victories on behalf of the environment in the courts and in the Senate recently, but there is still more work to do, especially in regards to soot pollution.

Particulate pollution, also known as soot, is an airborne contaminant, and one of the most dangerous ones at that. Soot is made of microscopic bits of matter and that matter can penetrate people’s lungs and infiltrate their bloodstream. Soot is proven to contribute to heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks, bronchitis, and in some cases ultimately death. Strokes are the third largest cause of death in the United States, with about 700,000 new or recurrent cases each year. This costs around 30 billion dollars annually. All of which could be reduced if the Environmental Protection agency strengthens it standards of soot pollution.

There is also an environmental toll from soot, not just the negative effects on human health. Particulate pollution has serious environmental impacts such as impairing the visibility of national parks like the Great Smoky Mountains. They may be called Smoky, but it is soot that prevents them from being seen. Soot also will contaminate water and plant life in regions it is found. In particular it depletes nutrients from the soil and erodes landscapes. Particulate pollution is also related to acid rain.

The Environmental Protection Agency understands these affects, but is long overdue proposing changes to the standards for fine particulate pollution, which includes soot. The new proposal would strengthen health standards and lead to local environmental benefits like cleaner air for everyone. The new standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in May of 2012 would save thousands of lives each year and ensure healthier, longer lives for millions of Americans.

Epidemiologists have studied populations over time and have been able to tease out that people living in areas with higher soot pollution are more likely to die earlier than people living in areas that have lower soot pollution. Soot pollution especially affects the young and the elderly, who are more susceptible to inhalation because of weak immune systems. Another study recently was concluded and determined that this is true by watching populations in six cities for a total of eight thousand participants over thirty years. It studied the annual, chronic level of soot exposure to each of these 8000 people. The Six Cities Study shows that soot pollution shortens lives even at levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency’s standards. The study therefore suggests that soot pollution kills people at all level of pollution. To support the Environmental Protection Agency’s strengthening of standards please sign this petition at The Environmental Defense Fund.

Photo credit: blog.epa.gov/administrator/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/industry_021.jpg

Thank President Obama for Enforcing New Emissions Standards

The Sierra Club and Care2 Action have drafted a petition letter to thank President Obama and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Lisa Jackson for passing tough new standards regulating emissions from power plants. The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which were passed and finalized in December 2011, will control the levels of toxic pollutants released by power plants – such as mercury, arsenic, nickel, and cyanide – by applying pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of power plants across the country to all power plants. There are no limits on the amount of pollution that power plants are allowed to produce, a dangerous rule that affects public health as well as the environment.

The first-ever federal standards for power plant emissions, the much-anticipated MATS will prevent 11,000 premature deaths, 130,000 cases of childhood asthma, 6,300 instances of childhood acute bronchitis, and 4,700 heart attacks per year. Toxic emissions are known to cause developmental disorders such as prenatal nervous system defects, heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illnesses such as asthma. These illnesses particularly affect babies, children, and pregnant women, and incur unnecessary and preventable expenses on Americans and their health care bills; enacting the new MATS will save Americans and their families $90 billion annually in health and economic costs.

In addition to health and economic benefits, the MATS will have a positive impact on unemployment rates. Implementing pollution control technologies in power plants will create as many as 46,000 short-term jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs in construction, utilities, installation, manufacturing, and engineering. Power plants will have three years to comply with the new rules, but many states are expected to allow them a fourth year to transition to the new standards.  

Carried by the wind, toxic compounds can travel several hundred miles and remain in the atmosphere for years. Emissions from power plants contribute to environmental issues like smog, poor air quality, acidification of lakes, damage to ecosystems in forest and coastal regions, and deterioration of historic buildings. Once it is released into the atmosphere, mercury can travel through the air before settling in bodies of water, where it contaminates the water and poisons birds and fish.

Power plants account for half of all mercury emissions and two-thirds of all acid gas emissions nationwide. According to the U.S. Energy Administration, as of 2010, 45 percent of energy generated in the United States came from coal, 24 percent from natural gas, 20 percent from nuclear energy, 10 percent from renewable sources, and 1 percent from petroleum.

In the petition letter, the Sierra Club and Care2 Action write, “Carbon pollution is the main contributor to climate disruption and is linked to life-threatening air pollution like asthma-inducing smog, making it a serious hazard to Americans’ health and future … By setting up carbon pollution protections, the EPA is moving forward to clean up and modernize the way we power our country — a move that will equal healthier kids, families and workers, while creating much-needed jobs and fighting climate disruption.”

The petition acknowledges that, though the MATS are a strong start to eliminating our country’s pollution problem, more actions can, and should, be taken in the future to further hold polluters accountable for carbon emissions. The two organizations are encouraging the public to show support for President Obama and the EPA – and to encourage the federal government to prioritize public and environmental health by enforcing further clean air laws – by signing the petition as a thank-you note. If you think that the Obama administration and the EPA have put the country on the right track with the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, sign the petition thanking our president! 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/roadhunter/2680448132

The Air Quality Crisis in Beijing, China

Beijing, China has a population exceeding 22 million and these 22 million people are breathing polluted air that is often at levels considered hazardous to human health.  The air pollution in Beijing has been so bad as to cause road closures and flight cancellations.  However, Chinese officials are claiming that the air pollution is not as bad as environmental experts believe it to be.

The U.S. Embassy has been monitoring PM 2.5 particulates (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers pose the greatest health risks) in Beijing, China.  However, the data that is being collected by the U.S. Embassy has caused controversy and fear among the Chinese, sparking debate and even talks of reform in air pollution reporting by Chinese officials. In the past, Chinese officials were measuring larger particles and thus, produced different readings than the U.S. Embassy air quality monitor.  As of January 21, 2011, Chinese officials have started releasing more detailed data on the air quality in Beijing.  This is the first time that Chinese officials have publicly released PM 2.5 air quality measurements.  

Nevertheless, there has been noted differences in the data collected by the Chinese than those collected by U.S. officials. For example, the Chinese officials released air quality readings of 0.015 milligrams per cubic meter on Saturday, January 21, 2011, which according to the Environmental Protection Agency is noted as “good” within a 24-hour exposure period. However, the U.S. Embassy posted a different reading of “moderate” on sites such as Twitter.  Steven Andrews, an environmental consultant, who has been studying the air quality in Beijing since 2006, is already suspicious of the air quality data Chinese officials have been reporting.  Within a 24 hour period, Chinese officials reported seven hourly figures of 0.003 milligrams per cubic meter which is considered to be very low levels of air pollution.  Andrews noted that throughout 2010 and 2011, the U.S. Embassy reported levels at or below 0.003 milligrams only 18 times! Thus, there is definitely something amiss with the data being reported by the Chinese and the people are justly worried and skeptical .

What is even more frightening about the air quality in Beijing is that the the levels of indoor air pollution can be high enough to be classified as hazardous to one’s health, prompting some to invest in air purifiers.  Sadly, not everyone residing in Beijing can afford to invest in air purifiers.  Research that has been conducted on the long term health effects of breathing the air in Beijing has concluded a loss of 5 to 6 years in life expectancy, including higher adult mortality rates for illnesses such as heart and lung disease.

Although not much can be done to reverse the devastating effects coal mining and other industrial pursuits have had on the air quality in Beijing, awareness of the problem is a step forward in the right direction.  Hopefully, with awareness, governments and world leaders can take a stronger stance on preventing further damage from occurring. In addition, there needs to be a consensus on the data that is being collected on air pollution levels in Beijing.  With organization and consensus comes change.

Photo credit: guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jul/28/pollution.carbonemissions

Encourage Cities to Adopt Natural Gas-Powered Garbage Trucks

The waste management industry serves over 75 million homes and 7 million businesses, providing an essential service to all Americans – but while this national fleet of garbage trucks collects litter and waste, it also contributes significantly to our country’s pollution problem. Most garbage trucks in the United States currently run on diesel fuel, which pollutes the air and adds to annual carbon emissions levels. In order for the waste management industry to truly fight pollution, garbage trucks should switch to burning natural gas, which emits less greenhouse gases than diesel fuel.

Diesel fuel-powered trucks contribute to air pollution and noise levels, and truck drivers often need to wear headphones to protect themselves against hearing damage. Clean fuel-powered trucks have the potential to reform the garbage industry and greatly reduce America’s air pollution. A report published by INFORM, an organization that explores alternative technologies, estimated that switching to natural gas-powered garbage trucks will reduce air pollution caused by diesel fuel from these trucks by as much as 94 percent, noise levels by up to 98 percent, and water pollution by 100 percent. Common air pollutants emitted from diesel fuel include particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and non-methane hydrocarbons.

There are 179,000 garbage trucks in operation in the U.S. today, and 91 percent of those trucks operate on diesel fuel. One garbage truck’s pollution level is comparable to that of 325 cars. The INFORM report stated that an average garbage truck travels a total of 25,000 miles annually on 8,600 gallons of gas, and that the fleet as a whole uses over 1 billion gallons of fuel every year. These trucks’ fuel economy is less than 3 miles per gallon, and the trucks are in use for an average of 12 years before they are retired, meaning that in their lifespan, the average truck will use 103,200 gallons of fuel. More than 40 percent of garbage trucks are over 10 years old.

Two common forms of natural gas include compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas, which is already used by some garbage trucks. Liquefied natural gas is a non-toxic, non-corrosive gas (usually methane) that has impurities such as carbon dioxide removed from it through processing. It is lighter than diesel and therefore cheaper to ship. While some are skeptical about the benefits of natural gas, many parties agree that it is more environmentally friendly than diesel fuel and contributes far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Southern California already has a ban on diesel-powered trucks in place. A law voted on in 2000 by the South Coast Air Quality Management District requires all garbage trucks and public transit buses added to the fleet after 2001 to run on natural gas instead of diesel. Waste Management Inc., the largest garbage company in the industry, currently operates 1,000 natural gas trucks in multiple states, including California. The company, which uses liquefied biomethane sourced from its own landfills to fuel its clean trucks, plans to continue to expand its environmentally-friendly fleet in the future. Its landfill in Altamont, Calif., provides as much as 13,000 gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) per day, a sign of great potential for the garbage industry. Waste Management’s 1,000 trucks eliminate 45,100 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year – if all garbage trucks adopted clean-burning fuel, national carbon emissions from diesel fuel would be reduced.

Encourage local and federal authorities to follow California’s lead by adopting a ban on diesel-powered garbage trucks. ForceChange.com has a petition directed at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director, Lisa Jackson. Sign this petition or draft a similar petition letter to ask your local government to adopt natural gas-powered garbage trucks in your area! 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/omaromar/2640386193

Urge President Obama to Consider Stricter Air Quality Standards

President Obama announced earlier this month that he will not seek to impose stricter air quality standards than those currently set by the Clean Air Act. Standards for smog (scientifically referred to as ground-level ozone) are currently set at 75 parts per billion (ppb), as a result of a 2008 decision. This decision went against the recommendation of an independent panel of scientists and experts, who recommended the standards be set at 60 to 70 ppb.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeks to overturn the current standards and enact stricter standards, but President Obama has said he will not support this move, in an apparently politicized effort to side with the pollutant industry and assuage their economic concerns. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson decries these standards as legally and scientifically indefensible.

The independent panel, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, reviewed environmental and smog data in 2010, and came to the same conclusion: that the standard should be tightened to between 60 and 70 ppb. If agreed upon, this stricter mandate would take effect in 2016, allowing industries ample time to consider how they will reduce emissions.

The current standards have been challenged in court by the American Lung Association, the National Resources Defense Council, and several states, but as a result of the president’s decision, the EPA will have to defend the existing poor standards against health and environmental groups who seek the same public health quality as the EPA.

The effects of smog, a gas created when chemicals emitted from vehicles react with sunlight, vary individually, with some people naturally being more sensitive to the gaseous pollutant. Children, the elderly and people with existing respiratory problems, such as asthma, suffer the highest risk of being affected by smog pollution. Studies have shown that people who inhale concentrations of smog higher than the standard of 75 ppb experience decreased lung function and increased respiratory diseases. Smog also contributes to agricultural damage, resulting in a loss of about $500 million in crops every year. Scientists haven’t pinpointed an exact ideal smog level, but setting the standards continually lower would positively affect public health and safety.

A smog level of 60 ppb would prevent an additional 5,300 heart attacks; 58,000 asthma attacks; and 4,000 to 12,000 premature deaths per year. Levels of 70 ppb would have less positive effects, but would prevent 2,200 heart attacks; 23,000 asthma attacks; and 1,500 to 4,300 premature deaths.

The Clean Air Act was first passed during the Nixon administration in 1970, and its contributions to public health over the past four decades include an avoidance of 700,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, prevention of 200,000 premature deaths, and a 41 percent decline in overall emissions. Additionally, the Clean Air Act is estimated to prevent 230,000 early deaths by the year 2020 and reduce cases of asthma, missed school or work days, infant mortality and heart disease. Amendments to the Act made in 1990 cost $65 billion to implement, but are expected to produce $2 trillion in economic benefits by 2020.

A recent Time Magazine article reported that seven of the United States’ worst-polluted cities are in California, as ranked by the World Health Organization. Of these seven cities, four are in notoriously smog-affected southern California, with Bakersfield taking the number one spot. Fortunately, smog levels have declined in the past 40 years as a result of mandates in the Clean Air Act; unfortunately, these levels still haven’t fallen low enough to be considered safe.

Provisions in the Clean Air Act require its amendments to be revisited at least every five years, meaning that even if amendments do not take place this year, a review of current standards is scheduled for 2013.

Persuade the president to reconsider his decision to support Big Oil and to make this country’s air quality safer and cleaner for everyone. Sign this petition letter at ForceChange.com to make your voice heard!

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/thewazir/4501582495/

World Health Organization Ranks Cities By Air Quality

A survey released by the World Health Organization on Monday has ranked the world’s cities according to air quality. Cities in the Middle East and Asia ranked among the most polluted cities, while cities in the U.S. and Canada ranked among the least polluted.

The WHO conducted the study measuring air quality to bring attention to the problem of air pollution, which poses risks to human health. Every year, 1.34 million people die prematurely from causes related to poor air quality. On its website, the WHO notes that acute diseases, such as pneumonia, can be caused by air pollution, as well as chronic diseases such as lung cancer. Children and the elderly are particularly at risk, as are those with limited access to quality health care.

The list, which includes information for almost 1,100 cities in 91 countries, was compiled using country-reported data about air quality from between 2003 and 2010, with most of the data coming from 2008 and 2009. Data was taken from sources including publicly available websites, regional networks, reports, and other publications.

To assess the air quality of a city, the WHO measured the levels of airborne particles smaller than 10 micrometers, which are also known as PM10s. PM10s are made up of mostly nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which are released from car exhaust and power plants. PM10s pose a risk to respiratory health in humans; to lower the risk of health problems, the WHO recommends an upper limit of 20 micrograms per cubic meter.

Ahvaz, a city in southwestern Iran, has been given the title of the world’s most air polluted city. With a population of 1.3 million, Ahvaz has an annual PM10s average of 372 micrograms per cubic meter. The study notes that low-quality vehicle fuel and heavy industry practices in the area are the main causes for the poor air quality in the city.

Second on the list of the world’s most polluted cities was the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator, which has an annual PM10s average of 279 micrograms per cubic meter. Sanandaj, another city in western Iran, came in third with an annual PM10s average of 254 micrograms per cubic meter. Cities in India, Pakistan, and Botswana also ranked high on the list.

The problem of poor air quality has long been an issue in Asia. Contributing factors include lack of public transportation, high population densities, and lax regulations on air quality control. The WHO also notes that rapid industrialization and low-quality fuels used for cars and electricity are major components of the poor air quality.

To combat the problem of poor air quality, steps are being taken in polluted countries such as India. Large cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, and Kolkata have ordered that no more power plants can be constructed within the city limits; existing power plants are either being shut down or relocated. At the same time, however, a lack of efficient public transportation in these cities has caused a huge surge in ownership of private cars and SUVs. This poses its own set of problems, as these cars are major contributing factors to poor air quality.

The study also ranked cities with the best air quality. Cities in Canada and the U.S. ranked highly, due to the lower population density, climate, and strict regulations on air pollution. Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon territory, had an annual PM10s average of only 3 micrograms per cubic meter. Second on the list was Santa Fe, New Mexico, with an annual PM10s average of 6 micrograms per cubic meter. Washington D.C., Tokyo, and Paris were also given the distinction of having good air quality.

In addition to the data compiled about the presence of PM10s, the WHO also released a shorter list that examined the levels of PM2.5s, which are even finer dust particles in the air. Harmful levels of PM2.5s are 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

Photo Credit: niehs.nih.gov/health/assets/images/smoke_billowing_from_the_smoke_stacks.jpg

Catalytic Clothing: Fashionably Cleaning The Air

Nowadays, there are a number of environmentally friendly fashion designers, focused on creating trendy, yet environmentally friendly clothing. However, a collaboration of UK colleges and universities want to achieve a more ambitious goal; to develop clothing that can remove pollutants and clean the air we breathe.

Professors and researchers at the London College of Fashion, University of Sheffield, and the University of Ulster created the brand “Catalytic Clothing” in which they developed a way to implement pollution fighting technology into clothing. By applying a titanium dioxide solution to clothing, people can help cut down pollution by simply wearing clothes. Equipping clothing with this technology is as simple as using a fabric conditioner with the titanium dioxide solution additive while doing the laundry. Once it dries, the clothing can immediately start cleaning the air. Perhaps in the near future, this solution can be purchased at local supermarkets in the laundry detergent section.

Simply put, electrons in the titanium dioxide solution become excited when light hits the clothing. Those electrons then react with the oxygen in the air, producing peroxide. The peroxide then reacts with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the air and breaks them down. Professor Tony Ryan of Sheffield University says the peroxide does the bulk of the work cleaning the air.

This technology has been used in other applications, such as pavement, paint, and glass coatings, but Professor Ryan believes applying the technology to clothing is a breakthrough. Wind is key to making this technology work and since people can generate their own wind by walking or even sitting in a car. It can prove to be a more effective application of the technology than immobile buildings.

Additionally, Professor Ryan warns that the solution must be readily exposed to light. “Any item of clothing could be treated, but in order for the technology to work you need light. So, for example, you wouldn’t want to coat your underpants,” says the Professor.

The solution reacts with any pollutants it comes in contact with and can be washed away the next time the laundry is done. Although this technology can remove pollutants from the air, after cleaning and removing the reacted pollutants from clothing, will these pollutants pose risks to water quality? If this technology becomes widely accepted, not only dirt, food debris, and other laundry waste is drained from washing machines, waste water from doing the laundry will also contain pollutants found in automobile exhaust and other harmful emissions. Facilities that treat waste water may have more work to do to accommodate this change.

Catalytic Clothing wanted a way to get people excited about this technology. Rather than just promoting a special fabric conditioner, they took it a step further by designing a stunning dress. Named “Herself”, the dress was the start of the Catalytic Clothing project. It was displayed at Newcastle ScienceFest from March 4 to April 11, 2011. The ScienceFest was held at King’s Gate, Newcastle University.

Model Erin O’Connor learned of the dress and its potential environmental benefits and agreed to wear the dress for a photo shoot.

In addition to the dress, Catalytic Clothing is also featuring more casual clothing; a line of jeans applied with the titanium dioxide solution.

According to Professor Ryan, a suit would have an application of about ten square meters of titanium dioxide, removing about five grams of nitrous dioxide each day. Says Ryan, “Let’s say there are 10 million people in London. So a conservative estimate would be that those 10 million people – if they only took one gram out each – that would take out ten tons of nitrous oxide in London every day.”

Photo credit: Helen Storey (Catalytic Clothing)

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/

EPA Delays Rule on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency bowed yet again to heavy political pressure from Congressional Republicans and industry lobbyists when it announced Monday plans to delay the release of a new rule on greenhouse gas emissions. 

Staunch opposition from GOP, oil, and coal industry leaders has temporarily stifled the agency’s attempts to ratchet up regulations on air pollution to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

John Broder of The New York Times calls the decision, “a tacit admission that the regulations pose political, economic and technical challenges that cannot be addressed on the aggressive timetable that the agency set for itself early in the Obama administration.”

The proposed rule would bolster regulations in place under the Clean Air Act to limit air pollution emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants and refineries, which together account for nearly 40% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Formal agreements were made to update the pollution standards over six months ago in December 2010 in response to pressure from states, local governments and environmental advocacy groups. 

According to an EPA press release last December, “the schedule issued in [the] agreements provides a clear path forward for these sectors and is part of EPA’s common-sense approach to addressing GHGs from the largest industrial pollution sources.” 

The preliminary standards were scheduled to be released in coming weeks.  The EPA was to propose the new power plant standards by July 2011, and follow with standards for refineries by December 2011.  After a period of public comment, the standards were to be finalized by May 2012 and November 2012 respectively. 

Evidently, the May and November 2012 deadlines still stand as the expected dates for a final ruling.  Tensions continue to escalate on Capitol Hill, however, as both conservatives and liberals go head to head on what is becoming an increasingly polarized issue. 

Just this morning, EPA Chief Lisa Jackson denounced American Electric Power and other opponents of the regulations, saying their executives were painting a “doomsday” scenario of the ramifications of the new standards. 

As Lucia Graves of The Huffington Post reports, Jackson “accused industry lobbyists of distorting the truth for a paycheck.” 

Jackson testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee saying: “While Americans across the country suffer from this pollution, special interests who are trying to gut long-standing public health protections are now going so far as to claim that these pollutants aren’t even harmful.  These myths are being perpetrated by some of the same lobbyists who have in the past testified before Congress about the importance of reducing mercury and particulate matter. Now on behalf of their clients, they’re saying the exact opposite.” 

Environmental advocates have backed her position, adding that the EPA is backpedaling by delaying the release of the new standards. 

Speaking for the opposition, critics claim that such regulations, if imposed, would stifle economic growth by forcing unemployment and higher energy costs to offset new overhead costs for improvements to existing power plants and refineries. 

GOP opponents cite over-regulation as the chief offense, warning that the agency’s new standards will “have a profound effect on the price, supply and reliability of electricity by forcing modifications to, or the shutdown of, dozens of older power plants.” 

Jackson “hit back,” however, citing statistics that indicate as many as 17,00 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, and 120,000 cases of childhood asthma could be averted by more stringent air quality control and the reduction of air pollutants. 

Just today the EPA released five locations (Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Puerto Rico, Chicago) that would fail to meet more stringent air standards for lead were the new regulations imposed.  Yet, the agency continues to “stress flexibility and public input” by setting a conservative pace for change. 

Ultimately, it appears another economy vs. environment debate lies at the heart of the situation.

Photo credit: search.creativecommons.org/?q=carbon+emissions&sourceid=Mozilla-search#

New EPA Rules May Give Eastern US a Breath of Fresh Air

American Electric Power (AEP), the largest power-producing utility in the US, may retire a quarter of its fleet of coal plants by 2014, in a move that marks a major shift to cleaner energy sources.  The tentative decision to retire or replace more than 7,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity comes as AEP gets ready to comply with new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations which Congress ordered the agency to develop years ago.  If AEP makes good on its promises, it will dramatically improve air quality and reduce illness due to pollution over a vast section of the United States.

“If AEP follows through with this plan,” said Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign Friday, “then it will join a growing list of utilities including TVA, Dominion, and TransAlta that have come to the same conclusion: coal has become an increasingly poor investment.”  Hitt went on to say that, “The coal plants targeted for phase-out lack modern pollution controls and contribute to thousands of premature deaths, asthma attacks and heart attacks every year.”

The EPA is in the process of finalizing new rules related to four types of environmental damage associated with coal plants: mercury emissions, toxic coal ash pollution, acid rain-forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and the impacts of power plant cooling systems on aquatic life.  Some proposed rules, like the one on cooling systems, are relatively weak and are expected to do little that changes how utilities operate.  Others, like the mercury rule, could significantly reduce pollution and force utilities to either clean up or replace their dirtiest coal plants. 

To comply with new regulations now on the table, AEP says it would need to retire five aging coal plants that lack modern pollution controls, while converting other plants to run on cleaner-burning natural gas.  It also plans to build new natural gas plants, and will likely need to make additional investments in renewable energy.  Many coal plants that are not retired will need to be retrofitted with pollution controls to bring them into compliance with clean air laws.

While announcing its plans to clean up its coal fleet, AEP complained it was being forced to make a hasty decision by EPA regulations it says do not allow enough time to shift to cleaner modes of producing electricity.  In fact, new power plant regulations have been pending for years but most utilities chose to largely ignore them.  The new mercury rule, for example, is being developed by the EPA as the agency works to enforce amendments to the Clean Air Act passed by Congress in 1990. AEP knew the rule was coming for more than twenty years, but chose to wait until the last minute to begin making changes.

AEP produces electricity for a vast swath of the eastern United States, including parts of Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Louisiana.  This area corresponds with some of the most polluted parts of the country: the negative health effects of power plant pollution are concentrated in the east, where most coal-burning plants are located.  According to Physicians for Social Responsibility, burning coal contributes to four of the leading five causes of death in the United States: cancer, heart disease, lower respiratory illness, and stroke.

Coal also has the biggest carbon footprint of any fossil fuel commonly burned for electricity, making it a major contributor to climate change.  Coal is responsible for around half of US carbon emissions, and 80% of emissions from the utility sector. 

For years many aging coal plants have been allowed to operate, despite lacking modern pollution controls that reduce health impacts on surrounding communities.  New EPA rules, mandated by acts of Congress like the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, will force more and more companies like AEP to shift to cleaner fuels, resulting in clearer skies all over the United States. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/tennesseevalleyauthority/4408959159/sizes/m/in/photostream/