Last month a federal appeals court upheld the authority of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose tougher clean-air standards. Ohio is among a handful of Midwestern and Southern states that has joined forces with electric utilities and other smokestack industries to fight the regulations, claiming they are too expensive and unnecessary. The EPA and private environmental groups say a crackdown is needed because air pollution from the Midwest is so extensive that it is even fouling states on the east coast. 90.3's Ley Garnett reports that both sides are locked in legal battles.
Ley Garnett- Two weeks ago, a Congressional study found that lakes and streams in the Adirondacks Mountains were still contaminated. Conditions had not improved over the last decade despite revisions to the Clean Air Act. Those revisions were designed to specifically address acid rain which is caused by smokestack emissions and vehicle exhaust. The study's conclusions were expected by Orrie Laucks, a zoology professor at Miami University. He says those Clean Air Act revisions were a bit misguided.
Orrie Laucks- Some people would argue that we hung the wrong guy in trying to go after sulfur dioxide emissions when we should have been aggressively going after nitrogen oxide emissions. And so the result is a number of initiatives now to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. First from utility plants because it will be a little easier, but in the not too distant future to reduce the nitrogen oxides from automobiles as well.
LG- The research by the General Accounting Office could resonate far beyond the woods of upstate New York. From a political standpoint, cracking down on factory pollution won't be easy at all, especially when it comes to coal fired power plants.
On the banks of Lake Erie in Lake County, lies First Energy's East Lake Coal plant. Built in the 1950's, this plant supplies about ten percent of First Energy's electricity. It does that by burning coal, lots of it. It comes in by the trainload.
Ronald Kantorak- That was one 100 ton car that just dumped western fuel from Powder River Basin. These guys will dump about 110 of those a day.
LG- This is also one of the plants under close scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The plant operates under weaker air standards that existed before the Clean Air Act became law.
Ronald Kantorak is manager of First Energy's coal plants. From about 20 stories above the plant he points out how the company has installed pollution control equipment called scrubbers.
RK- And you can see these are the new ones that were installed in the late 1980's for units, one, two, three and unit four right here, right out in front of us. And we had to build a new stack for the units also and that's the concrete stack and the end there.
LG- Ironically, 25 years ago, these tall stacks were thought to be a solution to pollution through dilution.
Ralph DiNicola- By putting them up a thousand feet above the plant or 500 feet above the plant, the idea is to disperse those compounds over a wider area.
LG- Ralph DiNicola is manager of public relations for First Energy.
RD- Some people would say that that's not the ultimate solution, that it's had mixed results, but keep in mind, we don't set environmental regulations, we comply with them and its the government that has established the requirements that we have to meet and we will meet them.
LG- But First Energy is fighting the new standards proposed by the federal EPA. DiNicola says the cost to comply might be prohibitive and that the electricity the plant produces is virtually irreplaceable.
RD- What gets lost in this debate sometimes is we've shut down 33 boilers, some 13 hundred megawatts of capacity, so the Clean Air Act is working. The older inefficient units are being shut down. The good operators like East Lake, it wouldn't make any sense to shut them down, because this part of the country needs generation and coal fired generation is instrumental to our meeting our customers'demand for electricity.
LG- Next year, electricity will be deregulated in Ohio, and First Energy will have to compete with out- of-state utilities for business. DiNicola suspects the newly deregulated market is a behind the scenes factor in this dispute over clean air. He says utilities based on the Eastern Seaboard want to see the cost of Ohio generated electricity rise so they can compete here. But Maria Widener of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group disagrees.
Maria Widener- These plants have been operating almost 30 years on completely antiquated standards and its time for them to come up to speed with the rest of the industry.
LG- Widener says with the advent of deregulation, utilities such as First Energy are trying to wring all the electricity they can from older coal plants because they're the cheapest to operate. She cites studies claiming that savings in medical care for respiratory diseases would far outweigh the cost of installing better pollution control devices.
Just last week, Ohio Senator George Voinovich entered the fray. Voinovich introduced a bill in Washington that would force the EPA to do a cost analysis for future new air regulations.
GeorgeVoinovich- We should invest our money where we're going to get a return on our investment and say: 'You know, if we spend this money, we really are going to make a difference in terms of cleaning up the air.'
LG- Most environmental groups view Voinovich's bill as an effort to hamstring the EPA by creating additional bureaucratic studies. Meanwhile, Governor Bob Taft says no settlement is in sight regarding the lawsuit between the Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA over just how tough the new standards should be. That would mean the state would launch a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Cleveland, I'm Ley Garnett 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.