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Smog Feared in Power Buildup

Electricity: Bush administration's plan for up to 1,900 plants over 20 years poses a threat to air quality, especially in the Midwest and South, experts say.


The Bush administration's plans for a massive buildup of power plants nationwide could result in dirtier air in places where smog is already bad and getting worse--particularly in the Midwest and the South, air quality experts fear.

Smog levels have been cut nationwide in the last 20 years, but the 1990s saw deteriorating air quality in places such as Columbus, Ohio, where the number of smoggy days jumped 78% during the decade, and Memphis, Tenn., where they doubled, according to figures from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

A large part of the deterioration is attributable to power plant emissions--a major contributor to ozone, which is colorless, and haze. Despite cleanup efforts, power plant emissions are up across much of the fast-growing South and in the Plains states.

Meanwhile, generating plants running at peak capacity to produce electricity for California are sullying Western skies too. Smokestack emissions are up from Washington state to Utah and Arizona to Montana, the EPA says.

"The interior West has fantastic visibility, and power plants are one of the primary causes of visibility degradation," said Bruce Driver, executive director of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. "The emissions stand out like pouring red wine on white carpet. We have concerns about building new power plants in the West."

The administration's energy plan calls for building up to 1,900 plants over the next two decades, increasing the nation's electrical generating capacity by at least half. That is equivalent to two new 300-megawatt plants a week--the fastest rate of expansion over such a long period since the end of World War II, according to the Department of Energy.

Republicans at the White House and in Congress say they are confident they can chart a path toward energy stability without harming the environment.

"Whichever way we go, we'll maintain the air quality standards," said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who chairs the House energy and air quality subcommittee.

In theory, more power plants do not have to mean worse air quality. Even plants burning coal, which is the dirtiest of the fuels in current use, can be made much cleaner. (A separate problem--emission of gases that can contribute to global warming--is worsened by any increase in the number of power plants burning coal, oil or natural gas.)

What most concerns air quality officials is that the administration not only has proposed increasing the number of plants, but it also has stalled efforts initiated by the Clinton administration to force dozens of dirty, older coal-fired plants to install up-to-date pollution control equipment through a rule, known as new source review, that is designed to control emissions from new and modified plants.

Administration officials began a series of public hearings last week on their proposals to replace the new source review rules.

When it comes to air quality, the administration's energy plan offers a fork in the road, said John D. Bachmann, associate director of science policy in the EPA's air quality division.

"The good path is: We can build a lot of new power plants with modern technology that have less emissions and phase out older plants," he said. "Or we can loosen emissions caps and the new source review regulations, burn lots of coal and let the power plants go."

Under that scenario, "you would see a worsening of air quality," he said.

Power plants will be the major factor governing air quality in much of the nation for decades, said William Chameides, a chemist in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"Extra power plants will put more emissions in the air," he said. "I don't know if people have thought this out very well, and I don't think people are aware of the magnitudes we are talking about."

In the optimistic view, the future could look like the Polk Power Station, now operating in a swamp near Fort Lonesome, Fla. The plant is one of two commercial clean-coal plants, which burn gases emitted from superheated coal. It emits 85% fewer nitrogen oxides than a typical coal-fired plant.

Nitrogen oxides, which contribute to haze and acid rain, are one of the major pollutants produced by power plants. In the air, they are key to forming ozone, a toxic gas that can sear lung tissue and cause shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and long-term loss of lung function.

Nitrogen oxides are also the only major pollutant targeted under the Clean Air Act that is not in decline. Emissions have increased nearly 20% since 1970, according to the EPA, with most growth due to coal-fired power plants and heavy-duty diesel engines.

Nationwide, emissions of all smog-forming pollutants from power plants dropped slightly over the last 10 years. But across the rapidly growing South and parts of the Great Plains and Midwest, emissions during the decade rose--growing as much as one-third in some areas, according to EPA figures.

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