WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency is clamping down on power plant pollution in 27 states that contributes to unhealthy air downwind.
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced on Thursday a plan to reduce smokestack pollution causing smog and soot in downwind states where it combines with local air contaminants, making it impossible for those states to meet air quality standards on their own.
The rule differs from one proposed by the Obama administration in July. Power plants in the District of Columbia and five states Delaware, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana and Massachusetts will no longer have to control year-round emissions of two pollutants sulfur dioxide, responsible for acid rain and soot, and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to both smog and soot.
Texas, by contrast, will have to reduce more pollution than in the initial proposal, which required the state's power plants only to address summertime smog-forming pollution.
In a conference call with reporters, the EPA chief said the regulation would make sure no community has to bear the burden of polluters in another state. She said just because pollution drifts far from a power plant "doesn't mean pollution is no longer that plant's responsibility."
"Pollution that crosses state lines places a greater burden on (downwind) states and makes them responsible for cleaning up someone else's mess," Jackson said
In addition, the EPA proposed requiring power plants in Oklahoma and five other states to control nitrogen oxide emissions during the summer smog season. If that proposal becomes final, power plants in 28 states will be covered by the regulation.
Jackson said the changes were based on the latest air quality data.
Critics called it another step by the Obama administration to crack down on coal-fired power plants. The regulation is one of several expected from the EPA that would target pollution from the nation's 594 coal-fired power plants, which provide nearly half of the country's electricity but also a significant share of its pollution.
While the EPA says the suite of regulations will not cause the power to go out, almost everyone agrees that it will help close down some of the oldest, and dirtiest, coal-fired facilities. At the remaining plants, operators would have to use existing pollution controls more frequently, use lower-sulfur coal, or install additional equipment.
"The EPA is ignoring the cumulative economic damage new regulations will cause," said Steve Miller, president and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a pro-coal industry association. Along with other pending regulations, Miller said they "are among the most expensive ever imposed by the agency."
The regulation replaces a 2005 Bush administration proposal that was rejected by a federal court.
The rule, which will start going into effect next year, will cost power plant operators $800 million annually in 2014, according to EPA estimates. That's in addition to the $1.6 billion spent per year to comply with the Bush rule that was still in effect until the government drafted a new one. The agency said the investments would be far outweighed by the hundreds of billions of dollars in health care savings from cleaner air.
In the first two years, the EPA estimates that the regulation and some other steps will slash sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent from 2005 levels, and nitrogen oxides will be cut by more than half.
Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from power plant smokestacks can be carried long distances by the wind and weather. As they drift, the pollutants react with other substances in the atmosphere to form smog and soot, which have been linked to various illnesses, including asthma, and have prevented many cities from complying with health-based standards set by law.
"This rule makes power plants behave like good neighbors by cutting their pollution that spreads across the border," said Albert A. Rizzo, a pulmonary and critical care physician with the American Lung Association. "For too long, soot and smog pollution have traveled far from their sources, impacting public health."
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the regulation will help protect Delaware and other "tail-pipe" states on the receiving end of another state's pollution. He said the fact that Delaware power plants will no longer be covered by the rule showed his state had done its part.
"Unfortunately, some of our neighbors haven't made the same progress in curbing air pollution," Carper said. "We have no control over this pollution, yet it endangers our health."
The migrating pollution also produces haze in parks, and damages forests and lakes with acid rain.
The 27 states subject to the rule are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.