Some power plants with smog controls aren’t using them effectively — or at all — and are fouling the air hundreds of miles away as a result.
That’s the conclusion reached by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week to make 19 coal-fired plants run their control equipment throughout the summer, when ground-level ozone — often known as smog — is most likely to form.
Ten of those 19 plants were identified by the Center for Public Integrity in September as “super polluters” because they were among the top 100 U.S. industrial sites for toxic substances pumped into the air, greenhouse gases released, or both, in 2014.
Maryland’s petition focused on releases of nitrogen oxides, a key ozone ingredient. Ben Grumbles, Maryland’s secretary of the environment, said he simply wants the 19 plants to do what his state’s coal plants must: “Run the controls — run the controls every day of the ozone season, and downwind states will benefit significantly from that.”
Ozone is bad for the lungs, can trigger asthma attacks and, researchers suspect, can harm the heart as well. And the pollutants that turn into it when baked in the sun can travel far afield.
Maryland contends that roughly 70 percent of its ozone problem can be linked to emissions from upwind states. Its petition names power plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, including three in the southwest Indiana region that the Center featured because of its concentration of big air polluters.
Maryland says in its petition that the power plants’ inefficient use of their controls put roughly 39,000 tons of nitrogen oxides into the air in the summer of 2015 that otherwise would have been captured. That’s because federal rules capping those emissions are based on averages over the entire summer, rather than on a daily basis.
As coal plants run less frequently due to competition from natural gas and renewables, they no longer have to use their controls consistently to meet the federal caps. That saves the plants money. But it contributes to ozone, which forms as a result of conditions on a given day — not based on summer-wide averages. It’s also created tensions between states, some of which have acted to require smog controls be run, and some of which have not.
The EPA said it is reviewing the petition.
Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokeswoman Courtney Arango called the request “deficient” because Maryland air wasn’t violating ozone requirements as of 2015, the most recent publicly available ozone data from the EPA. Maryland says exceedances in 2016 pushed it over the limit, and an even tighter standard kicks in next year.
Arango said the EPA recently updated nitrogen oxides caps for Indiana in a September rule intended to reduce ozone ingredients pumped out by power plants.
“Indiana and its utilities are complying with the rule and have no plans to challenge it,” she said in an email.
Maryland officials said the new rule still allows power plants to average their emissions over time, and therefore won’t address their concerns.
Maryland’s effort follows a regional petition in 2013 to make Indiana and eight other states do more to control ozone. The EPA has yet to act on that petition as required; New York and four other states sued in October to force a decision.
Indiana uses coal to make three-quarters of its electricity, and Gov. Mike Pence — the vice president-elect — has fought federal efforts to cut down on power-plant pollution. Pence casts it as an economic issue, saying coal employs Hoosiers and makes the lower-cost electricity the state’s manufacturers rely on.
Health and environmental advocates are pushing back, contending that coal is no longer the cheapest option, even without considering the costs to health and the climate. This week, a trade group promoting energy efficiency and other “advanced energy” industries said the sector — coal’s competition — employs nearly 48,000 in Indiana. That’s seven times the number of people directly employed by coal mining there, according to federal figures.
“The common misunderstanding is that clean-energy jobs don’t matter, they’re not very significant. And they really are,” said Advanced Energy Economy CEO Graham Richard, a former Indiana mayor and state senator. “These transitions are wrenching for a community, and we certainly understand a coal-country job being lost is a travesty for that family. But we’ve got to find ways of transitioning to a new kind of economic opportunity in those areas, and we don’t help ourselves by promising to retain that which the economic forces are going to wash over anyway.”
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