Coal-fired power plants across Pennsylvania already are installing the sophisticated devices that will reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, or "NOx." They're analogous to the catalytic converter in a car, only much larger - bigger than a small house, in most cases.
The nitrogen oxides, after being mixed with ammonia in the presence of a catalyst, are converted into pure nitrogen and water. If installing the device would prove too expensive at a particular plant - the cost can run as high as $2,000 per ton of reduced emissions - owners may buy "allowances" from their competitors elsewhere in the Northeast.
"From what we've seen on the reports from the plants, it looks like most of them are pretty well along to meeting [the new standards]," said Dean Van Orden, a regulator with the Bureau of Air Quality at the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"All of them have begun the process," said Douglas Biden, president of the Electric Power Generation Association, an industry group in Harrisburg. "Some of them have completed it."
The reductions for Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states, mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, came in two phases. In Pennsylvania, nitrogen oxides were cut from 205,000 tons in 1990 to 93,500 tons in 1999. Next year, the number will drop to about 51,000 tons.
The new rule is taking effect a year earlier here than in some Midwestern states that challenged the EPA's directive, such as Michigan and Ohio, a discrepancy that has rankled Pennsylvania utility officials.
The EPA estimated that the rule would result in a 1 percent increase in electric bills, though some industry officials say the hikes will be higher.
Health experts and environmentalists were pleased when Pennsylvania announced its new rule in 2000. But an attorney with one environmental group said it was unclear whether the air would be noticeably cleaner to the average person, given that much of the pollution comes from other states.
"We expect to see substantial reductions in NOx emissions, although the effect on ozone smog is uncertain," said Charles McPhedran of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future. "Even bigger challenges lie ahead in dealing with sulfur dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide."
Those pollutants currently are under scrutiny in Washington. Sen. James Jeffords, the independent from Vermont, introduced a bill in March that would mandate additional reductions in nitrogen oxides, as well as sharply curtail emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury and carbon dioxide.
President Bush is pushing a "Clear Skies" proposal, introduced in both houses during the last few days, which calls for less stringent reductions that would take much longer to implement. His package, introduced last week in the House, does not address carbon dioxide, a "greenhouse gas" that many blame for global warming.
Environmental groups say Bush could obtain significant pollution reductions with better enforcement of the laws already on the books - a charge the administration has denied. Eric Schaeffer, the EPA's top civil enforcement official, resigned in protest in February over what he said was the administration's failure to enforce existing laws.
Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or email@example.com.