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October 21, 2016
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Clearing the air, part I A little environmental history

The trend to weaken environmental proposals is alive and well in the Keystone state. Consider the Commonwealth’s proposed plan for dealing with its chronic smog problem. (Smog is the result of sunlight reacting with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and especially with NOx to create airborne particles and ground-level ozone—not to be confused with ozone in the atmosphere that protects the earth from the sun’s ultra-violet rays.) In 2013, PA counties experienced a combined 485 dangerous ozone days, up from about 300 in 2012. Despite this, the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Environmental Quality Board (EQB) is currently proposing a plan to allow power companies to negotiate new compliance terms when they cannot meet their air quality standards set by EPA. (Such pollution limitations were first established by EPA in 1971.)

Because PA hasn’t met federal air quality standards (currently more than eight million residents live in areas that have not attained health-based smog standards), DEP/EQB has been required to write a plan for how its hundreds of power plants will meet NOx and VOC emissions standards, especially the commonwealth’s 31 coal-fired power plants. Under the plan, each power plant must have installed Reasonably Available Control Technology (RACT) for reducing emissions and have a plan for how it will meet its target RACT limitations. (Critics say that RACT is not sufficient, and that PA should require Selective Catalytic Reduction technology instead, which is readily available.)

Unfortunately, the state’s implementation plan seems devised to let the utilities off the hook in meeting their required goals. Here’s how: the plan would allow utility companies to petition for an alternative compliance schedule, allow them to negotiate to modify their permits by averaging their pollution emissions over their entire fleet of power plants (instead of achieving compliance for each individual plant), and to use a 30-day rolling average to achieve emissions goals rather than the former standard that had to be met in one-hour or eight-hour increments.