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Regulation Works: How science, advocacy and good regulations combined to force a massive reduction in power plant pollution and public health impacts

February 20, 2014

In 1996, Clean Air Task Force was founded to launch an effort to clean up emissions from coal-fired power plants.  Our primary goal was to massively slash their emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2).  So CATF’s first step was to document the impacts of power plant pollution through a series of studies looking at impacts ranging from mercury deposition, ozone smog, global warming and fine particle pollution.

In our inaugural study issued in 2000, we looked at fine particle pollution from power plants and its health impacts around the country.  We used EPA’s own methodologies, and recruited its own consultants, to calculate the impact that fine particle pollution from power plants was having on America’s health.  The results were astounding, and the impact of the report itself was too. The goal of cleaning up coal-fired power plants dramatically entered the political scene, both in Congress and in the Presidential race, where both Al Gore and George W. Bush embraced the notion of reducing all four pollutants.

Of course, in public advocacy, nothing worth doing is easy.  It’s now 14 years later, and we are finally closing in on the objectives that the campaign first set out to achieve.  Through enactment of state legislation and regulations, enforcement of existing laws, and finalization of new regulations for mercury through the Mercury and Air Toxics Rule (MATS), and for SO2and NOx emissions through EPA’s interstate air pollution transport regulations, the public health impacts have dropped dramatically.  The final piece of the puzzle is now being assembled, through EPA regulations to address climate-impacting CO2emissions for new and existing power plants.  It has been a long path, but the achievement is huge.

To illustrate this, let’s look just at fine particle pollution from power plants, which is formed by the emission of SO2 and NOx.  In 2000, 2004 and again in 2010, CATF issued studies based on work by Abt Associates quantifying the deaths and other adverse health affects attributable to the fine particle air pollution resulting from power plant emissions. Our 2004 study showed that power plant impacts exceeded 24,000 deaths a year, but by 2010 that toll had been reduced to roughly 13,000 deaths, due primarily to the impact that state and federal actions were beginning to have.  Using the most recent emissions data, in our 2014 update, CATF has found that about 7,500 deaths each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants. While this number is still far too high, it does represent a dramatic reduction in power plant health impacts over the past 14 years.

This decrease reflects pollution reductions due to a variety of federal and state regulatory and enforcement initiatives supported by CATF, including the MATS and interstate air pollution rules, and the active enforcement of existing laws such as New Source Review (NSR). Since 2004, these measures have cut emissions of SO2 and NOx, the leading components of fine particle pollution, by 68 percent and 55 percent respectively. This result was achieved through the near doubling of the amount of scrubbers — the technology used for reducing SO2 pollution — installed at power plants, as well as the retirement of many older, inefficient and heavily polluting coal plants. Yet, despite this progress, some in the power industry and several recalcitrant states persist in trying to overturn the MATS and interstate air pollution regulations in court, and reverse this life-saving trend.

The updated study shows that strong regulations requiring stringent emission controls can have a dramatic impact in reducing air pollution across the country, saving lives, and avoiding a host of other adverse public health impacts. The study also shows that some areas of the country still suffer from unnecessary levels of pollution from power plants that could be cleaned up with the application of proven emission control technologies.

So our fight to clean up deadly emissions from power plants is by no means over, but the goal line is clearly in sight.

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