Inquirer Editorial: Breath of fresh air

DEAN ROHRER
DEAN ROHRER
Posted: March 21, 2011

Proposed reductions of toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants are a needed step to improve public health in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has announced new standards to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic chemicals from power plants. The changes would prove especially beneficial to the Delaware Valley and South Jersey, which are downwind from some of the worst-polluting plants in the nation. Jackson said the new rules would prevent thousands of cases of asthma, heart attacks, and premature deaths.

In all, toxic emissions would be reduced by 91 percent. Utilities will have up to four years to retrofit to meet the tougher standards, although some industry officials are fighting the proposal as too costly.

Pennsylvania is second only to Texas in the amount of mercury emitted from power plants. The Keystone facility in Armstrong County and the Conemaugh power plant near Johnstown are ranked 15th and 22d, respectively, among the top 25 worst mercury polluters in the nation, according to a report by the Environmental Defense Fund.

The plants' ownership group said it already has invested $1 billion in pollution-control devices and will meet any new rules to keep the plants operating.

Other utility owners might not be willing to adapt. About half of Pennsylvania's 38 power plants lack the technology to meet the higher standards. They would need to decide whether to invest in new pollution-control equipment, switch to cleaner-burning natural gas, or shut down.

Industry groups say it could cost utilities up to $100 billion to upgrade their plants; the EPA estimates it will cost $10 billion.

Jackson said the new regulations would raise the cost of the average household utility bill by $3 or $4 per month. But unhealthy air is a poor trade-off for lower electricity bills. Power companies have known this day was coming for more than a decade. Unfortunately, some of the utilities would rather keep spending money on a legal battle than invest in the cleanest possible air standards for their customers.

The EPA is taking public comment on its proposal, with a final rule expected by November. The agency should resist vigorously industry's efforts to weaken this needed standard.

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