Monday, April 8, 2013

Air Pollution from Coal Fired Power Plants

On April 1, 2013 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Dominion Energy Corporation to pay $3.4 million civil penalty and spend $9.75 million on environmental mitigation and community projects and close a coal fired power plant in Indiana. Reducing air pollution from coal-fired power plants and reducing the number of coal fired power plants in the United States, is one of EPA’s National Enforcement Initiatives for 2011-2013.

In addition to the civil penalty and mitigation projects mentioned above Dominion Energy must install or upgrade pollution control technology on two coal fired power plants, and permanently retire their State Line plant. The pollution control upgrades will produce annual reductions at the Brayon Point and Kincaid plants of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions by 52,000 tons from 2010 levels. The retirement of the State Line plant will result in an additional reduction of 18,000 tons of SO2 and NOx. The State Line power plant was first put into operation in 1929 and overhauled over half a century ago. Dominion Energy decided to close the plant rather than upgrade the pollution control systems announcing that intent back in November 2010 and finally closing the plant on March 31, 2013.

The reason that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides matter to the EPA (and the rest of us) is because reacting in the atmosphere with sunlight and water vapor they form fine particulate pollution. Particles created this way tend to be fine particles with diameters smaller than 2.5 microns, called PM 2.5, which are the most dangerous to human health because the small particulates lodge in the lungs which can have both immediate and long term health impacts.  Combustion engines and coal burning power plants are key contributors to PM2.5 particles, and according to the US EPA and World Health Organization, the smaller, finer pollutant particles measured by PM2.5 are especially dangerous for human health. Studies have shown that there is an increased risk of asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular problems, birth defects and premature death from these particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter.

Coal fired power plant and other sources of pollution like refineries and cars and trucks emit both particulates and precursor pollutants that form particulates in the atmosphere. Air pollution will be significantly reduced in the immediate region of the Dominion power plants and because particulate pollution can travel significant distances downwind, air pollution will be reduced outside the immediate region. The State Line Plant which sits on Lake Michigan and supplied power into the Chicago market had 515 megawatt capacity. According to the Chicago Tribune, Illinois alone added 500 megawatts of wind power in 2010, under DOE subsidized projects. Elimination of the State Line Plant will reduce particulate pollution.

Currently, under the Clean Air Act the US EPA has established both annual and 24-hour PM2.5 air quality standards (as well as standards for other pollutants). The annual standard is 12 ug/m3 (an air quality index, AQI of 50). The 24-hr standard is 35ug/m3 (an AQI of 99). These standards were last revised in December 2012 when the annual standard was lowered from 15 to 12 ug/m3. EPA’s analysis found the new lower standard for the annual exposure will prevent almost 2,000 premature deaths each year in the United States.  According to EPA seven U.S. cities averaged particulate levels higher than the 15 ug/m3, the former standard: Bakersfield, CA; Hanford, CA; Los Angeles, CA; Visalia, CA; Fresno, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; and Phoenix, AZ. The American Lung Association in their latest report states that twenty cities have average year-round particle pollution above the new EPA air quality standard of 12 ug/m3 and most are in California. Though the California cities will remain in non-attainment in the near term, the other cities are anticipated to be able to meet the standard with the implementation of the new regulations for coal fired power plants and other recent EPA regulations which will result in the closing of several power plants and the upgrade of the pollution control systems of the others.

The United States particulate levels are a small fraction of the levels in the worst areas of the world-Beijing, New Delhi, Santiago (Chile), Mexico City, Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Cairo (Egypt), Chongqing (China), Guangzhou (China), Hong Kong, and Kabul (Afghanistan).   However, studies have shown that air currents over the Pacific are carrying elevated particulate levels into California presumably from China. Combined with their automobile density and use, California cities might have a difficult time meeting the new PM 2.5 standard despite their strict regulations.

The air pollution in Beijing, home to over 20 million people, can be seen as the smog that wraps the city’s apartment complexes and office buildings on many days. The US Embassy in Beijing has their own PM2.5 monitoring station atop their building and has been reporting via an open Embassy Twitter Feed hourly PM2.5 pollutiondata. The U.S. Embassy reported a series of readings beyond the scale of the equipment air quality index, AQI, (which goes to 500) in fall of 2010. Particulates levels soared to over 700 ug/m3 last June and reportedly had levels hit 1,000 ug/m3 this past winter which sparked emergency measures in the city. All these levels are beyond the AQI scale. 

Current air quality levels from the US Embassy are “moderate,” but as Edward Wong reported in the New York Times and others reported elsewhere data from the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study found that over 3.2 million premature deaths in 2010 due to PM 2.5 particle air pollution worldwide. In East Asia (China and North Korea) PM 2.5 contributed to 1.2 million deaths in 2010, and in South Asia (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) it contributed to 712,000 deaths in 2010. These numbers are more than double the deaths estimated by the World Health Organization based on 2004 data when there were fewer coal fired power plants, industrial plants and cars in these areas. Air quality in the urban centers of the United States has improved from the early days of the 20th century when our nation was the factory of the world. While the   EPA’s regulations tighten and renewable energy subsidies increased to further improve ambient air quality and reduce carbon dioxide and pollutants released in the United States, the fast growing economies of Asia are spewing pollution (not only carbon dioxide) into earth’s atmosphere. 

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