Power Plant Modernization Pays Quick Dividends

Some power companies, like Duke, went to court rather than comply with EPA demands that they cut emissions. But other utilities decided to go ahead and clean up their plant's emissions. One of them was Dominion Power in Virginia.

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While Duke and eight other big power companies have been in court, at least a dozen others decided to clean up rather than fight. They're taking huge steps to slash pollution from their coal-fired power plants.

Here's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Near Richmond, Virginia, at Dominion Power Company's Chesterfield plant, more than a hundred workers are busy with jackhammers, backhoes and drills. They're building two massive structures designed to cut air pollution. David Heacock, a senior vice president of Dominion, says the company is spending a billion and a half dollars on pollution controls at eight plants.

Mr. DAVID HEACOCK (Senior Vice President, Dominion Power Company): We're seeing a tremendous reduction already. We've already seen a 40 percent reduction in Virginia and West Virginia from the controls we've already installed.

SHOGREN: He says when the work is done in about three years, the reductions in three air pollutants will reach about 80 percent. He says his company has no regrets that it decided to work with the Environmental Protection Agency instead of going to court.

Mr. HEACOCK: Dominion's still very pleased with our decision to install the controls and settle with the EPA. It's still the best decision for the environment, for our shareholders and for our customers to do that. And we're well ahead of the rest of the industry.

SHOGREN: Dominion has managed to pay for the clean up without raising electricity rates. Heacock says the company avoided big legal bills, too.

Mr. HEACOCK: For us, we chose cooperation over litigation. We could have spent tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars on lawyers. We preferred to spend that money on pollution control devices.

SHOGREN: State officials say Virginians already are breathing more easily because of Dominion's decision. Bill Hayden is the spokesman for Virginia's Department of Environmental Quality.

Mr. BILL HAYDEN (Spokesman, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality): In the late ‘90s we could have 25 or more bad air days in Richmond. This summer we had nine; and if it wasn't such a hot summer, we probably would have only had three or four.

SHOGREN: Hayden says the EPA is ready to take the city off the list of the nation's smoggiest places. Other places around the country have seen even more dramatic improvements when their local utilities agreed to clean up. Bruce Buckheit negotiated the EPA's clean-up deals with power companies.

Mr. BRUCE BUCKHEIT (Former Director, EPA Air Enforcement Office): The best example is Tampa Electric, which is the first company to settle. They put the controls on already, so they're done. And the Tampa area went from unhealthy air to healthy air just because of that.

SHOGREN: Buckheit retired from the EPA three years ago. He says more power companies would have agreed to cut pollution, but soon after President Bush took office, the new officials at the EPA made it clear that they would rewrite the rules to favor industry.

Mr. BUCKHEIT: Negotiating is all about leverage and convincing the other side that it's inevitable so you might as well sign up and not put up a fight. And the companies were being encouraged by the administration not to settle. It's very disheartening because we thought we were doing a good thing for the country.

SHOGREN: The companies that fought the EPA haven't made nearly the same progress in cleaning up emissions. For example, Duke's sulfur-dioxide emissions have increased in recent years. But as it turns out, no matter how the Supreme Court rules, Duke won't escape pollution cuts because North Carolina passed an aggressive power plant pollution law. And new federal laws will eventually make most of the other companies clean up, too.

Still, by going to court, they delayed the need to buy pollution controls. At Dominion Power in Virginia, Heacock says he's really glad his company has most of its work already behind it.

Mr. HEACOCK: We have the advantage that we have put many of our pieces of equipment in four or five years ago when the costs were much lower. We're seeing in some cases a doubling of the costs today versus four or five years ago. It's a tremendous increase.

SHOGREN: Heacock says however the Supreme Court rules, the power companies that fought the EPA may in the long run end up paying a hefty price.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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