Power Plant Emissions Blamed for Premature Deaths

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - Almost 6,000 premature deaths can be blamed each year on pollution from 80 power plants in the Midwest and Southeast, charges a report released by a consulting firm and a former enforcement officer from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The study looked at the emissions from plants run by eight utility companies cited by the Justice Department in 1999 and 2000 for violating the Clean Air Act.

The analysis also estimates that pollutants from these companies lead to 140,000 asthma attacks and 14,000 cases of acute bronchitis every year.

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Aging power plants spew tons of air pollutants into the atmosphere each year (Two photos by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
The study was prepared by Abt Associates, one of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) primary technical consultants on clean air. It is based on likely emissions in 2007, and accounts for the emissions reductions expected under the federal government's current acid rain program.

Eric Schaeffer, who was chief of civil enforcement for the EPA until he resigned last month, released the report.

"This report shows how the Bush administration's failure to enforce the Clean Air Act is a serious threat to public health," said Schaeffer. "Many children and families suffer the misery of asthma, bronchitis and even premature death because of the pollution coming from these eight utilities. From my experience inside the EPA I know that these companies would be a lot closer to cleaning up their acts if the White House could find the courage to say no to the energy lobbyists and enforce the law."

The eight companies included in the report - American Electric Power, Cinergy, Duke, Dynergy, First Energy, SIGECO, Southern Company, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned utility - have all been cited by the EPA for violations of the Clean Air Act. About 80 power plants run by these utilities were exempted due to their age at the time that the Act was passed.

But under the Act's new source review provisions, facilities which add new capacity or other upgrades must comply with all relevant Clean Air Act regulations. Under the Clinton administration, the EPA launched major enforcement actions against each of the utilities for modifying their older, coal burning power plants to produce more energy, without installing required emissions control equipment.

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All of the utilities listed in the report have been accused by the EPA of illegally upgrading without installing pollution controls.
As the Clinton administration drew to a close, two utilities - Cinergy and Virginia Electric & Power Co. - signed agreements in principle to spend $1.9 billion installing updated emissions control equipment at their aging power plants and pay substantial fines. But after the Bush administration took office in January 2001, the companies backed away from the agreements, responding to the new, business friendly political landscape.

In May 2001, the White House Energy Task Force ordered a 90 day review by several agencies of the new source review provisions. In January 2002, the Justice Department announced that the lawsuits filed by the previous administration would continue, but so far, no final agreements have been reached with any of the utilities.

Schaeffer contends that those companies who were ready to settle and begin taking steps to cut their emissions "walked away from the table" because of those signals. When Schaeffer resigned last month, he said in a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman that the agency "was snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" in regard to the lawsuits, because the White House was sending signals to the companies that clean air laws would be weakened.

In March, the EPA said it was drafting revised regulations that would promote voluntary emissions reductions and discourage federal lawsuits against utilities. The proposal parallels the Clear Skies Initiative announced in February by President George W. Bush, which would support voluntary efforts to reduce emissions of mercury, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.

Schaeffer called the Clear Skies initiative an "insufficient" alternative to enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

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Ohio power plant. None of Ohio's coal burning power plants are currently required to follow the strict emissions standards of the Clean Air Act of 1970 because they were planned or constructed prior to 1973. (Photo courtesy Ohio Environmental Council)
"When the EPA says the Clear Skies proposal will clean the air, ask them for their numbers," said Schaeffer, who spent 12 years at the agency. "They have yet to release an analysis that shows Clear Skies will get anywhere near the air pollution reductions expected by enforcing current law."

The analysis in the Abt report released Wednesday is based on modeling from health data collected nationwide, and the known link between emissions and respiratory illnesses.

The data are broken down into state and utility company totals. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia are estimated to have the highest numbers of premature deaths - more than 200 per year for each state - due to the emissions of the eight utilities. The state with the highest estimated mortality rate - 550 deaths - is Pennsylvania.

The largest numbers of estimated premature deaths are attributed to the emissions of the two largest utilities on the list, American Electric Power, with 1,400 deaths, and the Southern Company, with 1,200 deaths.

Southern Company spokesperson Mike Tyndall said the report is a "very selective" look at emissions data and offers an incomplete picture of the issue.

"The Abt report ignores dozens of peer reviewed studies that find absolutely no association between sulfates from power plants and health effects," Tyndall said.

The Abt report aims to illustrate the health effects that each utility has on each state. For example, the report states that facilities operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority are estimated to be responsible for 54 premature deaths, 43 cases of chronic bronchitis and 1,500 asthma attacks in North Carolina each year.

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Pollution emitted from a coal burning power plant. (Photo courtesy National Renewable Energy Lab)
Schaeffer said the study was completed using the "most conservative numbers in the range of possible assumptions." He said this is the first report to estimate the health impact of emissions from all plants owned by these eight utilities, but its numbers are consistent with earlier reports from the nonprofit advocacy group Clean Air Task Force, which examined the impacts of pollution from a subset of plants.

The Abt Associates report considers the health effects of particulate matter caused by sulfur dioxide emissions from the 81 facilities operated by the eight companies. Effects of ground level ozone are not considered in the report.

Schaeffer, saying lapses in environmental enforcement is a growing threat to public health, announced plans to form the Environmental Integrity Project, a new nonprofit project that will advocate for stricter enforcement.

The Environmental Integrity Project will be a project of the Rockefeller Family Fund, a public charity based in New York City. Schaeffer said the project would combine research with grass roots advocacy to achieve better enforcement of environmental laws.

The complete Abt report, prepared for the Rockefeller Family Fund, is available at: http://www.rffund.org