Air-pollution laws and struggles
posted at 12/25/2011 9:36 AM EST
In the 1990s, U.S. EPA did not, as the previous post contends, "implement" the Clean Air Amendments Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-549). Moreover, PL 101-549 provided that new clean-air regulations could override existing emission permits. Several state clean-air standards that followed it, between 1990 and now, did the same--essential in the struggles over cleaning up older power-plants.
Some of the reader's outlooks are not unusual for laboratory workers, who may have murky knowledge about legal backgrounds of government standards. Less common, however, is an implied view that understandings of pollution hazards would be frozen in time. Research has gradually deepened knowledge of potential hazards, refuting some while confirming others. For example, perchlorethylene, the common dry-cleaning fluid, is currently regarded as a skin irritant but probably not a human carcinogen. Fine particulates, on the other hand, suspected as major health hazards since the nineteenth century, have been confirmed as causes of heart and lung disorders. It was not easy to distinguish their effects from those of other hazards, often present at the same time.
That reader's assessment of methylmercury is bogus. U.S. EPA, typically very cautious in its assessments, currently warns: "Chronic exposure to methylmercury in humans...affects the [central nervous system] with symptoms such as paresthesia (a sensation of pricking on the skin), blurred vision, malaise, speech difficulties and constriction of the visual field. Methyl mercury exposure, via the oral route, has led to significant developmental effects. Infants born to women who ingested high levels of methyl mercury exhibited mental retardation, ataxia, constriction of the visual field, blindness and cerebral palsy." [ at http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/mercury.html ]
The NIH Office of Research Facilities currently warns: "Organic compounds of mercury such as methylmercury are considered the most toxic forms of the element. Exposures to very small amounts of these compounds can result in devastating neurological damage and death. For fetuses, infants and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development. Even low levels of mercury exposure such as result from mother's consumption methylmercury in dietary sources can adversely affect the brain and nervous system. Impacts on memory, attention, language and other skills have been found in children exposed to moderate levels in the womb." [ at http://orf.od.nih.gov/Environmental+Protection/Mercury+Free/MercuryHealthHazards.htm ]
Although it did not implement PL 101-549, during the 1990s the Clinton administration did institute more vigorous monitoring and enforcement under the "Prevention of Significant Deterioration" (PSD) and "New Source Review" (NSR) requirements, which had been introduced to federal laws by the Clean Air Amendments Act of 1977 (Public Law 95-95) but largely ignored by the Carter, Reagan and Herbert Bush administrations.
PL 95-95 required power-plant improvements, beyond routine maintenance, to include upgrades to meet enhanced emission standards. Some power-plant operators tried to evade PSD and NSR, making improvements in increments, each described as only routine maintenance. The Clinton administration's EPA began enforcement actions, sending notices and then filing legal complaints in several such cases. They were vigorously opposed by power-plant operators, delaying enforcement for years.
Although the Walker Bush administration tried, for the most part, to undermine air-pollution standards, it continued some enforcement actions that had started during the Clinton administration, only to be blocked by adverse rulings from southern federal court jurisdictions. Those misfortunes ended with a unanimous Supreme Court decision April 2, 2007, reversing a lower court ruling in Environmental Defense v. Duke Energy (05-848, reversing and remanding 3rd Circuit, 411 F. 3d 539). [ available from Cornell University Law School, at http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-848.ZS.html ]
Large power-plant operators quickly took notice. In a Clinton-era case, United States v. American Electric Power (AEP), a settlement was announced October 8, 2007, one day before a scheduled district court hearing related to the trial held in July, 2005. Choosing to settle the case rather than risk a verdict that might have cost it more, AEP of Columbus, OH, the largest U.S. operator of coal-fired power-plants, agreed to spend an estimated $4.6 billion on plant upgrades to cut emissions.
The complaint in 1999 by the Clinton administration's EPA said AEP had violated emission standards at 30 of its 46 coal-fired units. After that complaint was filed, AEP publicly stated, "This lawsuit is just another political effort...totally without merit." In the final result, merits of the complaint proved substantial.
Under terms of the settlement, AEP is to reduce nitrogen oxides emissions by 69 percent (to 72,000 tons per year) by 2016 and to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 79 percent (to 174,000 tons per year) by 2018. A statement from the U.S. Department of Justice estimated annual benefits at $32 billion per year, to be saved in health-related costs associated with respiratory and cardiopulmonary illnesses. [ Fact sheet, October 9, 2007, at http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2007/October/07_enrd_798.html ]
The AEP consent decree set total annual emission limits for 46 AEP generating units located in Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. It also set individual unit operating limits for nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, both 0.10 pounds per million BTU heat input. By comparison, EPA operating limits for new generating plants, at the time of the settlement, were 0.11 pounds nitrogen oxides and 0.15 pounds sulfur dioxide per million BTU heat input.
Going forward under the recent, much delayed implementation of PL 101-549 by the Obama administration's EPA, what will be of great interest is how the new Cross-state Air Pollution Rule and Mercury and Air Toxics Standards rule mesh with settlements of Clinton-era PSD and NSR cases and with state air-pollution standards that were issued during the 21-year delay between enactment of PL 101-549 and its recent implementation.