U.S. Power Plants Slow to Clean Up Their Act Most of country's 420 coal-fired power plants still lack advanced pollution controls, even though the equipment to clean up their hazardous exhausts has been widely available for many years, according to Environmental Protection Agency officials.
NPR logo U.S. Power Plants Slow to Clean Up Their Act

U.S. Power Plants Slow to Clean Up Their Act

Most of country's 420 coal-fired power plants still lack advanced pollution controls, even though the equipment to clean up their hazardous exhausts has been widely available for many years, according to Environmental Protection Agency officials.

Serious Health Hazards

The federal government has long known that the plants harm public health, but in recent years, science has shown that they are deadlier than Congress realized when it adopted major air-pollution laws.

The EPA now estimates that each year, tens of thousands of older Americans die early from heart or lung failure, and younger Americans suffer asthma attacks, as a result of tiny particles or soot from power plants. Both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted by the plants form fine particles or soot.

"These are much smaller than the width of a human hair, so they can deposit very deep in the lungs and can contribute to a lot of respiratory effects, as well as cardiovascular effects," says Jonathan Levy, a professor of public health at Harvard University who studies power-plant pollution.

Exhausts from coal-fired power plants also create haze, which mars scenic views, and cause acid rain, which kills trees and pollutes streams. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest emitters of sulfur dioxide and major emitters of nitrogen oxides.

Legal Loophole

A loophole in the 1970 Clean Air Act allows older plants to avoid installing advanced pollution controls that would slash these deadly emissions.

"Older power plants, when the Clean Air Act came on line, were not required to meet the same emissions requirements of new power plants, because of the potential expense and engineering difficulty. So that led them to not need to install the same emissions controls. And that perpetuated over the decades," Levy says.

The Clinton administration tried to close the loophole by enforcing a long-ignored provision of the act: It requires plant owners to install advanced pollution controls if they modify or expand their plant. The EPA and states have been fighting power companies in court over the issue.

"To think that well over half of the plants burning coal still don't have any significant pollution controls -- it's really an extraordinary evasion of the law that the industry has perpetrated here," said Peter Lehner, chief of the New York Attorney General's environmental protection bureau.

So far, the federal courts are split. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear one of the cases in November.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's EPA rewrote Clean Air Act regulations to favor the industry's interpretation. But the change that would have been most effective in helping industry avoid installing expensive pollution controls on old coal-burning power plants was blocked by a federal court in March.

A Widespread Pollution Problem

Coal-fired power plants supply half of the nation's electricity. In 2004, two-thirds of this power came from plants without scrubbers, devices that can remove up to 98 percent of sulfur dioxide from power-plant emissions, according to a recent EPA analysis.

Even more of this power was produced without the advanced controls that can strip 90-95 percent of the nitrogen oxides form the exhausts.

Recognizing the problem, the Bush administration put in place new regulations to force coal-fired power plants in the 28 states in the eastern half of the country to reduce emissions.

The system sets pollution caps for emissions for all the plants. It allows plants that reduce pollution faster to sell "pollution credits" to plants that are slower to clean up.

A Long Way to Clean Up

Still, by 2010, only 40 percent of the electricity generated with coal will be from plants with advanced controls for nitrogen oxides; less than half of it will be from plants with scrubbers, according to the EPA analysis. Ten years later, more than 40 percent still will come from plants without advanced controls for nitrogen oxides, and more than a quarter from plants that lack scrubbers.

Environmentalists say the EPA's analysis shows that the Bush administration's approach is too slow to clean up plants that so clearly threaten Americans' health.

"Those big, dirty, grand-fathered belchers are an inordinate share of the pollution problem," said John Walke, an attorney for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Why are people continuing to have to live next to those plants and suffer -- and in some cases, die? Because the Bush administration made the political calculus that we're willing to live with that over the next two decades."

Too Many Exempt Plants?

Walke analyzed EPA data on individual coal-fired generating units. He found that even in 2020, 68 percent of the 1,041 total coal-fired, electric-generating units in the eastern half of the U.S. still will lack scrubbers or advanced nitrogen oxides controls.

EPA officials stressed that many of the power plants that haven't installed scrubbers or advanced controls for nitrogen oxides have cut pollution in other ways. Some have switched to coal that contains less sulfur. Others have installed pollution-control equipment, but it's less effective than scrubbers or advanced controls for nitrogen oxides.

"You can count scrubbers, but that won't give you a complete picture of all the measures plants are taking to cut pollution," said John Millett, an EPA spokesman.

Other Harmful Emissions Remain Unregulated

The federal government has done even less to control two other harmful air emissions from power plants: mercury, which falls into waterways and ends up in fish that people eat; and carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury air pollution, and one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide. Last year, the EPA announced a plan to reduce mercury emissions, but it wouldn't require advanced technology to cut the emissions for more than a decade. The federal government does not regulate carbon dioxide emissions.