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A photo of a power plant in Georgia.

Power plants like this one in Juliette, Georgia, will soon have to follow stricter rules on pollution that drifts to other states.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBB KENDRICK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published April 30, 2014

The air in the eastern United States could soon get a little cleaner, environmentalists say, after yesterday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a controversial regulation regarding air pollution that travels from state to state.

The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR), enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011, will require power plants in 27 states and the District of Columbia to reduce their emissions of key pollutants that drift downwind.

In December 2011, the U.S. Circuit Court in the District of Columbia ordered a stay of that rule, but the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-2 to overturn the lower court this week.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from the eastern seaboard state of Rhode Island, applauded the recent ruling.

"For too long, virtually uncontrolled coal-fired power plants have used tall smokestacks to export dirty air to downwind states like Rhode Island—polluting our skies and endangering our health," he said in a statement.

Rhode Island state officials have previously been unable to stop such pollution from entering their state, Whitehouse said, but the ruling "means that the big polluters' days of dumping pollution on our citizens without consequence are over."

U.S. Representative Ed Whitfield (R-Kentucky), whose state is home to many coal mines and coal-fired power plants, criticized the court's ruling. "The administration's overreaching regulation will drive up energy costs and threaten jobs and electric reliability," he said. (Read "Can Coal Ever Be Clean?" in National Geographic magazine.)

Saving Lives?

The EPA says the new rule could prevent 13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. According to the agency's estimates, it could also prevent 15,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 19,000 hospital and emergency department visits, 19,000 episodes of acute bronchitis, 420,000 cases of upper and lower respiratory symptoms, 400,000 episodes of aggravated asthma, and 1.8 million days of missed work or school, for a total of up to $280 billion in health and environmental benefits.

In March, the World Health Organization estimated that air pollution was linked to one in eight deaths worldwide. (See "WHO Report: Indoor Air Pollution is Greatest Environmental Health Risk.")

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the Supreme Court's decision "a resounding victory for public health and a key component of EPA's efforts to make sure all Americans have clean air to breathe."

A photo of a football team practicing near a power plant in West Virginia.
West Virginia is one of 27 states that must take a closer look at emissions from power plants.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBB KENDRICK, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

How the New Rule Will Work

Howard Fox, an attorney for the environmental law group Earthjustice who helped prepare a legal brief on the issue, says the rule will "close a loophole" in the original Clean Air Act from the 1970s. Some power plants had been "getting away with" not controlling emissions that blew downwind to other states, says Fox.

The most significant of those pollutants are sulfur and nitrogen, which can react to form dangerous levels of ozone and can be harmful to the lungs.

The 27 regulated states and the District will have to meet specific emissions reduction targets, depending on their existing output and control programs. Some plants may only have to enact changes during the summer, when air quality tends to be the worst. Others may need to make more dramatic changes, like switching to more low-sulfur coal, increasing maintenance schedules, or adding technologies such as emissions scrubbers.

The rule is expected to affect 1,074 power plants running on coal, gas, and oil. Exempted states are those that don't currently send much, if any, pollution downwind to other states.

What About Jobs?

Jeannice Hall, a spokesperson for Atlanta-based Southern Company, says the utility had joined other electricity generators and states in suing to block the EPA's new rule from going into effect. Hall now predicts "resulting negative impact on our customers"—that is, higher prices—in the three states Southern serves (Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi).

In response to Congressman Whitfield's charge that the new rule could lead to job losses, Fox says, "When we're talking about pollution that kills people, those people don't have a job because they aren't here anymore."

Fox says that if more pollution meant more jobs, the dirtiest places would be the most prosperous, "but that's not the way it works ... Workers want to live in places that have clean air; they want a safe place for their families."

He added that technologies to control emissions could help create other jobs, and "we're not talking about turning out the lights—we're talking about generating power in a clean way."

The industry association for electric power companies, the Edison Electric Institute, declined to comment on the Supreme Court decision.

The regulations will not go into effect immediately. The EPA is currently reviewing the opinion and says the air pollution rules that existed before the CSAPR will remain in place for the time being. "No immediate action from states or affected sources is expected," the agency says on its website.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

2 comments
craig hill
craig hill

The affected states north and east of Ohio and West Virginia need to follow the example of the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal government, which is replacing the nation as a single entity with laws and freedoms that can exist in one state and not in another (returning to the look the federal government had during slavery and the prior heyday of states' rights). The NE states have been mired in the courts for decades trying legally to get the courts to order the two states noted above to cut their smokestacks in half, so they end up forcing their own people to breathe in the gunk they're producing rather than continue to send their pollution northeast. There are many lakes in supposedly pristine Vermont with warning signs posted for pregnant women not to eat fish caught in those lakes, such is the amount of mercury deposted directly from those tall smokestacks in bodies of water rated F for the pollution pouring into those lakes. Under the new federalism, the NE state governments may need to attack Ohio and West Virginia with SWAT teams to blow up those somestacks themselves in order to save their own peoples' health, and let the Supreme Court rule on that after the fact.

Jack Wolf
Jack Wolf

Now, they'll need to work on temperatures and climate change.  Fast. 

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