Report urges Midwest and North Eastern US to end environmental dispute

A new report may have cleared up an old argument that was delaying the implementation of measures to reduce air pollution in the Midwest and the north eastern regions of the US.

The report, published by the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), shows that the on-going use of old coal and oil-fired power stations in the Ohio River Valley (ORV) means that parts of the Midwest experience longer periods during which air pollution standards are exceeded than in the cities of the north eastern US. In other words, air pollution from the plants is primarily a local problem and is not significantly caused by polluting power stations in neighbouring regions.

This, says the report’s authors, shows that both regions should stop delaying improvements and sort out their own problems rather than blaming their neighbours for their air pollution problems.

“The report makes a clear case that the residents of the ORV are the real victims. On average, the power plants in the Ohio River Valley have more impact on people in the Midwest than on those in North East,” an OEC spokesperson told edie.

For over a decade, the cities of the north eastern US have been accusing Midwestern power stations of polluting their air. Midwest power utilities and politicians have always denied the claim. The argument, say environmentalists, has prevented anything being done about the air pollution: “The North East delayed its clean up plans while it waited for the Midwest to sort out its contribution to the North East’s pollution,” Armond Cohen, Director of the Clean Air Taskforce told edie. “The Midwest delayed because it was disputing the issue of the transportation of its emissions to the North East. In fact, the real issue is the local impact of the plants.”

The report shows that areas of the Ohio River Valley experience more hours of ozone-based pollution per year than north east cities, even though peak pollution levels are higher on the East Coast. Older-coal and oil-fired power stations emitting more than 1 million tonnes of nitrogen oxide (NOx) per year are the main source of the pollution, the research shows.

The length of time during which ozone standards were exceeded was probably linked to the region’s higher numbers of people admitted to hospital suffering from respiratory disorders, the OEC researchers claim. According to a recent study, communities in the Ohio River Valley had up to 17% more hospital admissions during the 1997 summer smog season than cities such as Boston or New York.

“It’s not the peaks of ozone that do the most damage; it’s the sustained exposure,” said Dr. George Leikauf, Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati. “By that measure, the Ohio River Valley truly is a unique alleyway of high ozone.”

The US EPA recently filed air pollution lawsuits against seven electric utility companies in the Midwest and South in an attempt to force the companies to install appropriate air pollution-control technology at ageing power stations (see related story). Some of the power stations in the case are located in the Ohio River Valley. The OEC report is expected to add weight to Congress’ attempts to overhaul the Clean Air Act and introduce national emission reductions for Nitrogen Oxide (Nox), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and heavy metals such as mercury.

The report shows that as much as 50% of ozone pollution in the Ohio River Valley is caused by power plants in the region. The power utilities have long maintained that only around 25% of the USA’s total air pollution comes from them, but the OEC report shows that this figure rises significantly in areas with a high concentration of power plants. “We knew that power plants are a big factor in Midwest air pollution, but this study surprised us with just how big it really is,” says Dr. Sandy Sillman, a professor of atmospheric studies at the University of Michigan and a contributor to the OEC report.

“The OEC report says that both sides are both right and wrong. It shows that there is transport of pollution between the states, but that there is not as much as the North East claims. However, the Midwest is wrong in that they are not facing up to the problem the pollution is causing in the region,” Cohen told edie. “Our attitude is a plague on both your houses. This stuff is everywhere so it’s no use arguing about where it comes from and power plants are a readily cleaned up source. There is plenty to do in both the North East and in the Midwest to clean up smog emissions – even if there was no transport of pollution.”

The authors of the report maintain that modernising the pollution controls on some plants and converting others to newer, cleaner technologies would dramatically improve air quality not only in the Northeast, but also in the Midwest and South.

Nox emissions could be reduced by adding ready-made control technologies to chimneys, replacing coal-fired plants with cleaner natural gas plants, increasing the use of renewable energy and investing in energy conservation, the researchers say.

“Despite the rhetoric on both sides, smog is not really an inter-regional fight,” says Kurt Waltzer of the OEC. “The pollution is in everyone’s back yard and the Midwest stands to gain even more from cleaning up our region’s older plants than the Northeast will.”

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