TOPICS > Science

Clearing the Air

January 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: Kerry Connor-McNiven has asthma. She takes medication every day for her condition and most of the time she does pretty well, but it’s a different story when air pollution levels go up around her Connecticut home.

KERRY CONNOR-McNIVEN: On the days when there is poor air quality I definitely have more trouble than on days that the air quality is good.

TOM BEARDEN: Connor-McNiven says the attacks can be terrifying.

KERRY CONNOR-McNIVEN: Well, it feels like you have a large dog sitting right on your chest, and every breath is a struggle to move that dog up and back. And it burns to take those breaths in and out. And the dog gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Thomas Godar is with the Connecticut chapter of the American Lung Association. He says the asthma problem is steadily getting worse.

DR. THOMAS GODAR, American Lung Association: We know there are about 175,000 in the state of Connecticut alone and about 87,000 of these are children under the age of 15. So asthma rates have doubled actually in the last 20 years.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Godar thinks air pollution is a major cause; so does Connecticut’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, and he says he knows who to blame: coal-fired electric power plants in the Midwest and South.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, Connecticut Attorney General: This issue is a matter of life and death in Connecticut. The report done for the EPA shows that there were 299 deaths in 1999 and 6,000 asthma attacks, tens of millions of dollars in health care and other costs. This study draws direct links between the air pollution in the Midwest that is blown by the prevailing winds to Connecticut – nitrogen oxide, sulfa dioxide, causing acid rain, smog – that not only damages our lakes and rivers and trees but also causes severe respiratory problems in our citizens and very grave health problems.

TOM BEARDEN: Under the Clinton Administration Blumenthal and several other Attorneys General in Northeastern states filed 51 lawsuits against coal-fired plants, mostly in the Midwest. They claimed these plants were flouting the rules of the Clean Air Act. But now the Attorneys General are afraid the suits may be rendered moot because the Bush Administration may rewrite part of the Act. The specific rules being scrutinized are called "The New Source Review," abbreviated NSR. They apply to older plants that were exempt when the Clean Air Act passed in 1970. The rationale was that they only had a limited life left, and that requiring expensive pollution controls was bad economics. It was assumed that the old plants would be replaced within a few years by newer facilities using the latest anti-pollution measures. But the New Source Review process was supposed to be triggered if an industry modified or expanded the plant and pollution increased. NSR would force the facility to install state of the art pollution control technology. But industry says that late in the Clinton Administration the government began to claim that routine maintenance triggered NSR. Scott Segal, a lawyer for the power companies, wants the law clarified so that cannot happen.

SCOTT SEGAL, Utilities Industry Attorney: The New Source regulations entered the law in 1977, and from the period 1977 till the middle of the Clinton Administration these regulations were singularly effective, effecting a 30 percent decline in major pollutants at the same time that coal consumption was going up by 70 percent. What we would like to see is the New Source Review program through clarification return to that period when it was "the" most effective environmental control mechanism. We’d like to see a bright line distinction between routine activities and major modification that could occur at a plant, and by so doing, we’d like to see more maintenance activities, and greater workplace safety, and greater environmental protection.

TOM BEARDEN: But environmentalists say what industry calls routine maintenance is actually reconstruction. Companies are extending the lifespan of the old plants and deliberately trying to avoid cleaning them up. Dr. Godar believes if NSR is weakened, there will be real consequences for public health.

DR. THOMAS GODAR: If you understand the healthcare costs to individuals who have asthma or emphysema and what it costs us in insurance costs alone just to maintain health in the presence of pollution. You’ll understand that we’re talking really about many billions of dollars, and so the cost to – to improve, for example, power plants that may be polluting is miniscule with respect to that.

TOM BEARDEN: Are Midwest power plants killing people in New England?

SCOTT SEGAL: Absolutely not. First of all, the science regarding the transport pollution from the Midwest to the Northeast is very suspicious and it oftentimes has been quite politically motivated. When folks in the Northeast talk about acute impacts related to air pollution, we may reasonably infer that those acute impacts are related to sources that are far closer than a thousand miles away.

TOM BEARDEN: Segal says most of the Northeast pollution comes from the area’s cars and trucks. Brooke Suter is with Clean Water Action, which has taken the lead on the clean air issue in Connecticut. She conceived that cleaning up every power plant in the Midwest still wouldn’t allow Connecticut to meet federal clean air standards.

BROOKE SUTER, Clean Water Action: If you were to put a wall up around Connecticut, we have enough pollution here in the states that we wouldn’t have clean air. Also, if you took all the sources in Connecticut and put them off line, to transport pollution would be such that we wouldn’t have clean air. And that’s why it’s important that these plants are cleaned up to modern standards on site of the stack because they would take care of both the local pollution problems and the transport pollution problems.

TOM BEARDEN: Bob Slaughter is with the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. The members of his association run oil refineries, which are also subject to NSR. He says changing NSR is vital to the U.S. economy.

BOB SLAUGHTER, Refiners Trade Association: People want to pretend that environmental programs, environmental progress comes free. It’s extremely expensive. The refining industry has spent billions of dollars in the last couple of decades, will spend billions more in this decade on environmental improvements. We’re heavily regulated; we will continue to be regulated. We have to make our plants cleaner. We are doing that. We have to make improvements in our product; we’re doing that as well. But we do need to know what the rules are, and because of the great cost of these programs, they have to be imposed efficiently, and with some flexibility, so that we can determine where we can get the biggest environmental benefit at the least cost to not only the operator but also to the consumers in the form of the price of our products.

TOM BEARDEN: Administration officials say that proposed changes are still being reviewed and that criticism of the plan is premature. Blumenthal says he and other Northeastern Attorneys General will sue the administration if there is any weakening of the New Source Review regulations.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The issue is much broader than simply the Northeast against the Midwest or other parts of the country, because the Air Quality Act, if it is undercut or eviscerated by the rollback in these rules, will have grave consequences for our whole country. It will imperil other parts of the country that depend on this federal statute and it is really a matter of law enforcement. We are involved in enforcing the law against these Midwestern power plants.

TOM BEARDEN: The administration is nearly five months past its own deadline for NSR revision. Some observers expect a decision at any time.