Small Number of Utilities Pack a Big Pollution Punch

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, May 11, 2005 (ENS) – Five percent of the nation’s power plants account for nearly a third of the sector’s air pollution, according to a new analysis released today by the Environmental Integrity Project. The report says these emissions could be controlled by existing technology if air regulations were enforced and utilities held accountable for the impact air pollution has on public health and the environment.

A nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, the Environmental Integrity Project was founded in 2002 by Eric Schaeffer with support from the Rockefeller Family Fund and other foundations.

Schaeffer directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Regulatory Enforcement until 2002, when he resigned after publicly expressing his frustration with "efforts of the Bush administration to weaken enforcement of the Clean Air Act and other laws."

Emissions from all U.S. power plants together cause some 25,000 premature deaths each year, as well as more than 35,000 heart attacks and half a million asthma attacks.

The Environmental Integrity Project's report, "Dirty Kilowatts: America’s Most Polluting Power Plants," is based on analysis of the latest available data from the EPA and other federal sources.

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FirstEnergy's Bruce Mansfield coal fired power plant in Pennsylvania ranks 19th in the amount of mercury emitted by U.S. power plants. (Photo by Kiyo Komoda)
It examined the emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx), mercury, and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the nation’s 359 largest power plants, all of which generated at least two million megawatt hours in 2004.

Some 72 percent of these plants rely on coal as their primary fuel source; others rely on natural gas, petroleum or a mixed fuel source.

These 359 facilities account for about 90 percent of the electric generation by power plants tracked by the federal government and some 56 percent of the nation’s total electricity.

The study found the 50 dirtiest power plants within this group generate 14 percent of electric power produced by the 359 facilities, but pump out 50 percent of SO2, 42 percent of mercury, 40 percent of NOx, and 35 percent of CO2 emissions.

“Electric power generation in the United States is far from equal when it comes to pollution,” said Ilan Levin, counsel with the Environmental Integrity Project and lead author of the report. “All these harms coming out of these power plants are avoidable.”

Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an organization that represents electric utilities, said the report is “designed to mislead the American public on air quality.”

Segal said air pollution data shows a continued improvement in the nation’s air quality over the past three decades and the report unfairly targets the large power plants.

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Jeffrey Energy Center is the largest power plant in Kansas. Jointly owned by three utilities, its mercury emissions rate ranks 25th in the country. (Photo courtesy Westar Energy)
“Total emissions from large plants simply reflect the average size of the facility, not its environmental performance,” said Segal, who criticized the study for ignoring the role the nation’s largest power plants play in providing “affordable and reliable electric capacity to our cities, our farms, our schools and our hospitals.”

The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) says it took that very concern into account with its ranking of power plants by emissions per megawatt hour of electricity generated.

Levin said the EIP analysts included that metric for each of the four pollutants it analyzed after criticism by industry groups about a similar report released last year that ranked power plants only by total emissions.

“This is not a scorekeeping exercise,” Levin told reporters. “This is about the health of Americans and the condition of our environment … and about unnecessarily dirty power plants.”

The study finds the 50 plants with the worst SO2 emissions rates accounted for 38 percent of SO2 emissions, but only 14 percent of electricity generated by the 359 largest plants.

Sulfur dioxide is a primary cause of acid rain and soot, also known as particulate matter, and is linked with a wide array of respiratory ailments, including asthma as well as forest destruction.

Five of the 10 plants with the worst sulfur dioxide emission rates are in Pennsylvania, although Alcoa’s Warrick plant near Evansville, Indiana ranks first by this measurement, according to the study.

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Aluminum manufacturing at Alcoa's giant Warrick plant is powered by Alcoa Generating Corp, 742 megawatt facility that produces enough electricity to supply a city of 200,000 people. (Photo courtesy GeniSim)
The worst 50 plants averaged nearly three times the amount of SO2 per megawatt hour as the average of the nation’s 359 largest plants.

The same plants emitted 22 times the amount of SO2 pollution compared to plants equipped with modern scrubber technologies.

Cleaning up dirty plants is not only economically feasible, according to the report, but would ultimately benefit the economy.

The study cites federal estimates that scrubbers can remove SO2 for less than $300 per ton, while each ton of SO2 removed from the nation’s air accrues an estimated public health benefit of at least $7,300.

Relatively small investments would render large benefits at the larger, more polluting power plants, said Schaeffer, EIP executive director and co-author of the report.

Larger plants have “huge economies of scale for clean up,” Schaeffer said. “If the federal and state governments were to put their shoulder to the wheel, you could get overall a 70 to 75 percent reduction of the SO2, NOx and mercury from these plants over the next six to seven years.”

American Electric Power, Cinergy, and Pennsylvania Power & Light have announced plans to reduce SO2 by installing scrubbers at plants in Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, by 2008 or later.

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Ohio Power Company's Gavin facility is the largest power plant in Ohio. It is ranked as the second largest emitter of nitrogen oxides by tons emitted. (Photo courtesy AEP)
Of the 359 plants ranked, the 50 with the worst emissions rates for nitrogen oxides account for 26 percent of all NOx emissions but only 14 percent of net electric generation.

These facilities had an average rate of 5.8 pounds of NOx emissions per megawatt hour, compared to a three pound average for the nation’s 359 largest power plants.

NOx is the leading contributor to smog – the plant with the worst NOX emission rate stands in Riverside, Minnesota.

The 50 plants with the highest mercury emission rates released 30 percent of all power plant mercury pollution, but also generated only about 14 percent of the electricity.

Texas and Pennsylvania power plants topped the list for the highest emission rates of mercury, a toxic metal linked to neurological damage in children and pregnant women.

The average emission rate for the 50 plants releasing the most CO2 was approximately 2,500 pounds per megawatt hour, compared to an average of 1,970 pounds for all 359 power plants.

The federal government does not consider CO2 a pollutant and does not require power plants to control emissions although CO2 is the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming.

The Environmental Integrity Project report can be found here: http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/pubs/Dirty%20Kilowatts.pdf