Some people claim that the Clean Air Act has its roots in Pennsylvania, where in 1948, a single smog event left 20 people dead and 6,000 others ill in the town of Donora. It was the worst air pollution disaster in U.S. history, tragically demonstrating to the nation that industrial air pollution isn’t just unpleasant, it’s potentially deadly. Almost 70 years later, Pennsylvania still struggles with poor air quality throughout its industrial regions.
In May 2012 the EPA found that 17 counties in the state were out of compliance with the most recent (2008) National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS. Those standards set the ground-level ozone limit at 0.075 parts per million averaged over eight hours. But areas in the southeast and southwest of the state, around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia routinely exceed these limits, endangering the health of the young, the elderly, and anyone with a respiratory condition.
Now, Governor Tom Corbett’s administration has proposed new regulations designed to bring the state’s air quality up to national standards, but environmental groups warn that the proposed new rules are far too lax to make meaningful improvements in public health.
While ozone high up in the atmosphere protects the planet from harmful radiation, ground level ozone is the main component of smog. Ground level ozone forms when sunlight catalyzes reactions between nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). NOx pollution is emitted during combustion from vehicles and industrial sources like power plants and cement kilns.
The Sierra Club, the American Lung Association, the Clean Air Council, and other groups say that under the new emission limits, the state’s biggest emitters, coal-fired power plants would be allowed to release more than 130,000 tons of smog-causing nitrogen oxides annually. That’s 40 percent more than they do now. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for about one-quarter of smog-causing pollutants in the state.
“The proposed pollution limits are actually higher than the current rates of pollution at many plants — as much as four times higher in some cases,” said Kim Teplitzky, Deputy Press Secretary for the Sierra Club. “Failing to require coal plants to use the pollution controls they already have puts a significantly more expensive burden on other industries that will have to install and operate new controls.”
Ryan Knapick, a staff attorney with the Clean Air Council explained that one of the biggest flaws with the new regulations is that the Department for Environmental Protection based the new limits on Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) that is inferior to technology that is already being used at many power plants in the state, making the rule much less stringent than it could be.
Part of the problem is also that Corbett’s plan doesn’t require that individual facilities meet the standards, just that the power-plant operators comply “on average” across their facilities. This means that certain areas could still experience hazardous smog even if the problem is no longer visible in official numbers.
“Under this rule, you can just say you’re having trouble meeting the standard and then you are allowed to comply based on emissions across all of your power plants on a thirty-day rolling average,” said Knapick. “You could run one part of your operation very strictly and then not bother on another facility. This could create really dangerous pollution hot spots in the state.”
“There are some groups whose stated goal is to put coal-fired generators out of business. To those groups, there would be no standard stringent enough,” Jacob Smeltz President of the Electric Power Generation Association told Newsworks. “What we try to do is strike an appropriate balance.”
The state pollution control plan is open for public comment until June 30.