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Sulfur Emissions and Midwest Power Plants

August 1, 2001

Sulfur emissions from power plants form some of the most harmful common air pollutants. Power plants release more sulfur into the atmosphere than any other emissions sources.

Sulfur emissions form some of the most harmful and environmentally damaging pollutants in our air. Each year, uncontrolled power plants release twice as much sulfur into the air as cars, factories and trucks combined. Most of this power plant sulfur (94% nationally, 99% in the Midwest states) comes from burning coal to produce our electricity. Sulfur air pollutants from power plants include sulfur dioxide (SO2 ), a deadly gas that is toxic to communities near power plants , sulfate particulate matter, unhealthy fine particles that pollute our communities and places hundreds of miles away, and sulfuric acid that damages our environment. These air pollutants are responsible for asthma attacks, heart attacks, lost workdays, school absences and thousands of premature deaths each year. The same sulfur pollutants also cause hazy parklands and city skylines, and acid rain-damaged ecosystems. Due to a loophole in the Clean Air Act, millions of tons of sulfur air pollution are being unnecessarily released into the atmosphere each year by “grandfathered” power plants. This is occurring despite the fact that “scrubbers” have been in use for two decades capable of neutralizing and removing most (90-95%) of the sulfur emissions from America’s largest and dirtiest smokestacks. It’s time to clean up these old and dirty plants.

Sulfur dioxide emissions from the six Midwest states discussed in this report total about 5.4 millions tons per year, representing 28% of all U.S. SO2 emissions. Electric generating units (EGUs) in this six-state region emit nearly four million tons of sulfur per year, representing about 30 percent of the U.S. SO2 emissions from power plants. In the Midwest, coal combustion accounts for nearly 99 percent of the sulfur emissions from electric utilities.

Sulfur is an impurity in coal and oil. Coal mined in the Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio have the highest sulfur content of any region of the country. Coal from these states supplies much of the US coal needs. Over 80 percent of the nation’s coal is used to fuel the electric utility industry. Extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, largely coal, has resulted in the doubling of the amount of sulfur released into the environment during the industrial era.

This fact sheet focuses on the impacts of emissions of SO2 in the six state area of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and demonstrates the need for SO2 pollution reductions from power plants in the Midwest. The Clean Air Task Force publication Cradle to Grave, outlines the full range of impacts of pollutants that are released during coal mining, cleaning, processing and disposal of post-combustion wastes.