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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Push to Weaken Pollution Standards for Power Plants

Air Date: Week of October 31, 2008

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A coal-fired power plant in Kentucky. (Courtesy of the EPA)

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to change the way pollution from coal-fired power plants is measured. Eric Schaeffer is a former EPA insider who now heads the Environmental Integrity Project. He tells host Bruce Gellerman the change will result in a large increase in the amount of sulfur dioxide and other pollutants emitted each year.

Transcript

[THEME]

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

The Bush administration is set to propose new rules for old power plants that burn coal. The rules are intended to streamline operations, but critics charge they violate the Clean Air Act. One of the leading critics is Eric Schaeffer. Six years ago Schaeffer was the official at the EPA in charge of enforcing federal environmental laws, but he quit, protesting that the Bush Administration was preventing him from doing his job. Now Schaeffer is the head of an EPA watchdog group, the Environmental Integrity Project.

SCHAEFFER: What the administration wants to do now is basically rewrite the law, change the law, here at the last minute. And they would do that by changing the definition of pollution increase. And the long and the short of it is this change would allow a power plant to increase their emissions by thousands of tons a year without having to get permits and without having to put on pollution controls.

GELLERMAN: Now as I understand it, what they’re proposing is they want to – they want to say that if a power plant updates or makes a major modification, they count their pollution not over the course of a year but over an hour.

SCHAEFFER: Yeah. And here’s why that matters. Let’s say I have a car, and that I drive 50 miles an hour and that’s my normal rate of speed. But I’m, of course, only using it a few hours a day. Let’s say I take the same car and suddenly I’m driving it all the time. Well I’m going to burn a lot more gasoline, and, of course, I’m going to generate more emissions. What the administration basically wants to do is let you take that car and instead of driving it a few hours a day, drive it all the time. So if you’re tooling along at 50 miles an hour, they would say well you’re still at 50 miles an hour, even though you’re driving a lot more, we’re going to pretend those extra emissions don’t exist.

GELLERMAN: So if this proposed rule change did go into effect, how much extra pollution do you think would be emitted?

SCHAEFFER: Some plants could double their emissions under this new rule. So if you’re a plant that’s got thirty, forty thousand tons of sulfur dioxide a year now, you could go to seventy or eighty thousand tons. It’ll vary by region, because some states have their own rules that are pretty strict. One thing that’s hard to grasp is, these are the oldest, dirtiest plants. Many of them have never had the most basic kind of pollution control equipment installed, okay – they’re the so-called grandfathered plants. And they’ve been operating without scrubbers, which have been required for new plants for thirty, forty years. So it really matters when these oldest and dirtiest plants get to suddenly double their operating time and just thumb their nose at the law and say, “Ha ha, you can’t catch me because even though my emissions have doubled, my hourly emissions are somehow bumping along at the same rate.” And that’s what this rule would do.

GELLERMAN: I was looking at the cost of scrubbers and I didn’t realize they cost 300, 400 million dollars per plant.

SCHAEFFER: Yeah, that’s a scrubber for a large base-load plant. But, again, you know those costs can sound scary. What happens though, is the company will take that investment in pollution control technology, and they’ll of course borrow the money at very low interest rates, and they’ll roll that cost over about a twenty or thirty year period. So the true cost of putting a scrubber on is, I don’t know, ten or fifteen million dollars a year if we look at the annualized costs – it’s actually much lower. The other thing to remember is that, according the White House, a ton of sulfur dioxide costs the public health about $7,000 a year, each ton. Some of these plants put out 100,000 tons of year of sulfur dioxide. So you’re looking at a public health cost of $700,000,000 – a year. And that’s because the pollution from these plants creates fine particles that get into your lungs and trigger lung diseases and heart diseases and cause premature death. And so the bottom line is a large plant can cost the public about $700,000,000 a year. Asking them to spend ten or fifteen million dollars a year to put on a scrubber – that seems like a bargain to me. It does cost money to do the right thing. It’s not free. And when it’s not required, it’s not the kind of thing that power plants are going to do voluntarily. I wish I could tell you – on a lot of environmental debates there really are two sides, and while I may passionately argue one position, I can kind of understand the advocates on the other side and you can hope to reach some kind of compromise. I just don’t see that here. I don’t see that here. This is nothing but a power play at the last minute, with really no public policy argument behind it. Something that’s gonna increase pollution and make people sicker.

GELLERMAN: You still have plenty of friends in the EPA, right?

SCHAEFFER: Oh yeah, sure I do. I just talked to one this morning, in fact.

GELLERMAN: Yeah? What do they say about this?

SCHAEFFER: They’re disgusted, really disgusted. This rule was opposed, I think it’s fair to say, by just about every career civil servant at EPA. They know it’s environmentally outrageous and legally very fishy, and likely to be withdrawn by the next administration.


A coal-fired power plant in Kentucky. (Courtesy of the EPA)

So putting this out at the end is really kind of, I don’t know, I guess a last gasp. I keep thinking of the Terminator. You know the Bush administration has been taken to court on clean air roll back after clean air roll back. And by and large, the courts have blasted the administration’s efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act. And you turn around and here’s one more rule like crawling over the fence like, like one of those robots out of the Terminator. It’s like you can’t do anything to stop these guys until they’re finally out of town.

GELLERMAN: So you mean like “Hasta la vista, baby.”

SCHAEFFER: [laughs] yeah. That’s right. This won’t be the only rule they try to get away with. I expect there will be kind of a midnight run of bad regulations that are on the industry’s wish list, and they’ll be throwing more of these over the fence in their last days. But what a way to leave EPA, by parking these, you know, these really bad environmental rules on the doorstep of the next administration. What a, what a legacy.

GELLERMAN: Eric Schaeffer resigned as the head of regulatory enforcement at the EPA in 2002. He is now the head of the Environmental Integrity Project.

[MUSIC: Bombay Dub Orchestra “Map Of Dusk” from 3 Cities (Six Degrees 2008)]

 

Links

EPA on the Clean Air Act

Sierra Club on the Clean Air Act

Environmental Integrity Project on Clean Air Act

 

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