A coalition of environmental groups Tuesday rebuked the recent efforts of some Congressional lawmakers to roll back plans to implement more stringent federal clean air rules on power plants, contending the move would significantly impact public health within the Chicago area.
At the center of the debate have been two newly-proposed Environmental Protection Agency Clean Air Act rules – the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR) and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for power plants – intended to reduce the amount of pollutants emitted by facilities such as the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants, located on the Chicago’s Southwest Side.
Last week, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul introduced a resolution that would have blocked the implementation of CSAPR, citing the increased regulation would cause massive job loss and raise electricity rates. The motion was defeated by a 56-41 vote.
But as Natural Resource Defense Council Clean Air Director and Senior Attorney John Walke argued, such claims were without merit and are merely being used to justify what he characterized as “unprecedented attacks” being waged on clean air safeguards by Congressional Republicans.
“There have been well over 170 anti-environmental, anti-public health votes in the House of Representatives alone during this Congressional year,” he said. “And to a startling degree, those attacks have focused on the Clean Air Act.”
Walke cited a recent Washington article stating government regulation had a minimal impact on job loss, making up less than 1 percent of layoffs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “So we think this ‘job-killing regulation’, as a line of argument, is flatly false,” he said.
Walke also contested the notion the new regulation would cause a dramatic rise in consumer energy prices, saying the impact would be similar to normal market factors.
“EPA is projecting very modest electricity rate impacts as a result of its rules that fall within normal historic fluctuations,” he said. “And as any of us know, our electricity bills often fluctuate from winter to winter based on fuel price.”
A 2010 study by the nonprofit, Clean Air Task Force found pollution from the two plants was linked to more than 700 asthma attacks and as many as 42 premature deaths annually.
According to the EPA’s web site, CSAPR is expected to help significantly improve air quality among the 27 states required to follow the new standards, estimating by 2014 it could save Illinois as much as $12 billion by avoiding related health care costs.
“We see patients from in and around the neighborhood,” said EPA Midwest Region Consultant Dr. Peter Orris, who also serves as a professor and chief of service for Occupational and Environment Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center. “We see an elevated asthma rate; we see periodic exacerbations and pediatric emergency-room visits relating to atmospheric changes that cause the releases from the plants to settle locally in higher amounts than usual.”
Both the Fisk and Crawford plants are owned by Chicago-based Midwest Generation LLC, and have been exempt from complying with the Act’s emission standards because both were up and running long before the establishment of the Clean Air Act in 1970. The company has also vehemently denied claims pollution emitted from its plants has led to health problems.
For its part, Midwest Generation spokeswoman Susan Olavarria said most of the work in getting both plants in compliance with the new rules has already been completed.
“Basically, Midwest Generation is already set to comply with this rule in 2012,” she said. “And that’s based on work completed and planned under the Illinois EPA agreement that we did with the Illinois EPA back in 2006.”
Under an agreement with the state, Midwest Generation must close or retrofit the Fisk facility to comply with emission standards by 2015, and had until 2018 to make the necessary improvements to Crawford.
According to the company’s web site, Midwest has invested $200 million in pollution controls at Fisk and Crawford since acquiring them in 1999, resulting in a 90 percent reduction in mercury emissions. At the same time, the company stated it has been able to cut nitrogen oxide levels by 60 percent, and decrease the amount of sulfur dioxide emissions by 30 percent.
The deadline for power companies to be in compliance with the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule is January 1, 2012. Finalization of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are expected to be completed by the end of December.