Clean Air Task Force

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Non-CO2 Pollution from Coal

haze photo
Photo courtesy of State of Queensland, Department of Environment and Resource Management.

The threat to climate stabilization comes not merely from CO2 emissions. An array of pollutants that result from power plant operation—primarily sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOX), mercury (Hg), and other air toxics—operate synergistically to damage the environment and undermine public health.

Sulfur dioxide is among the most problematic air pollutants. In many parts of the East and Midwest, sulfates make up well over half the harmful fine particles in the air. These emissions are linked directly to acid rain, the haze that obscures scenic vistas in national parks and our urban areas and—along with NOX emissions (see below)—are the components of fine particles, which can cause a variety of respiratory-related health problems. Power plants spew forth about two-thirds of the SO2 emitted in the U.S. each year. Thanks to the 1990 Clean Air Act, national SO2 emissions have been reduced by approximately 50% over 1980 levels and recent state and federal actions have reduced them further in the eastern U.S. But power plant-related particulate matter pollution, mostly from SO2, will still result in more than 15,000 premature deaths in 2010. In addition, more than 150 years of sulfur deposition has taken a serious toll on our lakes and streams and the aquatic life that live in them: in some cases, the future existence of entire food webs is threatened.

The problems associated with nitrogen oxides include health and ecosystem damage due to ozone smog, which causes respiratory damage and nitrogen deposition. According to a recent study, ground level ozone sends an estimated 159,000 people in the eastern U.S. to emergency rooms each summer, triggers 6.2 million asthma attacks, and results in 69,000 hospital admissions. Power plants are responsible for about one-quarter of the NOX emitted in the U.S. each year.

The electric power industry emits more than 65 air toxics, and coal-fired utilities are the single largest industrial emitter of mercury air pollution, responsible for more than one-third of U.S. Hg emissions. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be passed in utero through maternal blood levels to the developing fetus. The toxic effects on children can include delayed developmental milestones, reduced neurological test scores, and, at high doses, cerebral palsy. Mercury is passed to certain populations through the consumption of contaminated fish, impacting people who are often economically marginalized or attempting to maintain specific cultural customs. According to EPA, all 50 states have mercury advisories urging avoidance of consumption of certain species of fish. In 35 of these states warnings apply to all waters statewide.

CATF is working to put maximum economic pressure on new and existing coal plants to either meet stringent performance standards for all pollutants—or to shutdown. This includes advocacy for a stringent Maximum Available Control Technology (MACT) rule for all power plants toxics. CATF spearheaded the deadline litigation that resulted in EPA signing a consent decree to propose a HAPs MACT rule for coal plants in 2010. We are also trying to win a stringent CAIR replacement rule for NOX and SO2 regulation related to power plants in the eastern United States. The Obama Administration EPA is now rewriting CAIR, after a federal court struck down the Bush Administration’s weak version two years ago.